Doughty Doug takes another drubbing

12th April 1996 at 01:00
Frances Rafferty, with the NUT inCardiff, opens four pages of news from the Easter teacher conferences

After another year of being bested by the Left, Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, has said he will continue his battle to widen democracy in the union and dilute the power of conference which he believes has been taken over by political activists.

For the second year running in his speech at the end of conference he attacked delegates for not representing the views of the wider membership. He said union members had voted overwhelmingly in support of his democracy proposals: "When you return to your associations and divisions, your members have the right to learn from you how and why you decided not to introduce changes that had been supported by a vast majority of those voting."

The union had balloted members before last week's annual conference in Cardiff and found more than 80 per cent in favour of Mr McAvoy's plans. But opponents claimed the low return, with only 19 per cent of those balloted voting, was not enough to show substantial support.

While the main decisions taken by conference included votes to take action over job losses and to support members picked out by inspectors, the democracy proposals became the central issue of the Cardiff conference.

Mr McAvoy's measures included: * allowing the union's executive to make rule changes (if backed by a ballot of all members); * motions to conference to be agreed by all members of an association before being submitted; * ratification of conference decisions by a ballot of all members; * curbs on local association spending .

He knew he faced great difficulty getting them through. He was essentially asking conference to vote itself and its status as the supreme decision-making forum out of existence. Given the choice (which the new powers could give him), Mr McAvoy would probably scrap the annual conference. And it easy to see why he would want to.

The adverse publicity it attracts is not good for the union and in recent years the form has been a series of battles between the conference and the union's executive with the executive coming off worst. This year was much the same, but it was on the whole a more muted affair.

When the Independent on Sunday leads with a story about the North Pole melting rather than the usual teachers-on-the-brink-of-strike-action, you have to wonder why.

Even the Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard's attempt to play up the way she was received at conference by a rag-tag group of Socialist Workers was taken with the pinch of salt it deserved. So it was not until Monday, when the democracy proposals were debated, that conference came alive with its usual barracking and endless points of order.

John Cox, an executive member from Cumbria, said many associations were being run by tiny cabals who aimed to ram through conference decisions that were totally unrepresentative of their members. Jerry Glazier, also on the executive, said most teachers were too busy marking to attend meetings. Graham Smith from Newham, east London said: "The world has changed. People's personal and professional priorities no longer include going to general meetings, especially if it means running a gauntlet of newspaper sellers in order to be harangued by half a dozen sad individuals about the need to waste money on the Socialist Workers' party."

In defence, Will Reese, from Coventry, said: "Local associations are the lifeblood of this union and the first line of defence for our members." He said the low attendance at meetings must be investigated. These themes were the talk of the tearooms. Jane Rolfe, from the City of Leicester association, said she was angry at the remarks made about local associations. She said: "There are a lot of unpaid people who are taking on union casework and being there on the phone when members have problems. These are the people members of the executive are attacking."

Opponents to the reforms say they fear it will lead to the general secretary being able to centralise power and enable him to influence members in ballots on policy decisions. Delegates argued that conference was necessary for debating policy and called a box ticking form of democracy a travesty.

Others did share the leadership's concerns about the Leftward swing of conference. Dave Watson, from Stockport, said: "I was last at conference 10 years ago and I can definitely feel the shift to the Left. The problem for grassroots teachers is that overwork is preventing them from attending union meetings. In the past 18 months there hasn't been one quorate meeting in my association."

Mr McAvoy told journalists after all his proposed reforms were voted out that members should be told how their association delegates voted. He said he would still use ballots of the full membership for establishing their views on policy issues. The general secretary was able to overturn two decisions taken at last year's conference after balloting all members.

The main business of conference was opened by Carole Regan's presidential speech. Ms Regan, a member of the Socialist Teachers' Alliance, is part of the leftward shift Mr McAvoy had attempted to attack in his reforms. Last year she pointedly refused to join a standing ovation after the general secretary's speech. But this year she did nothing to embarrass her leader. Her speech concentrated on what will be her main campaign this year - the defence of the comprehensive ideal and the opposition of selection.

And her mum cried all the way through it.

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