Jones sticks to his guns for union leadership

19th January 2007 at 00:00

THE MAN on the platform is wearing a red shirt. His opening word is "Comrades". A few moments later he speaks the term that none in New Labour now dare use: "As a socialist," he says, "I believe we should be a member-led union."

The man is Peter Jones, by common consent the outsider in the three-horse race to become general secretary of the newly merged University and College Union.

The event is the first in a series of hustings enabling the candidates to make their pitch direct to the membership. We are in a basement lecture theatre at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies and also on the stage are candidates Sally Hunt, a former leader of the Association of University Teachers, and Roger Kline, the former head of HE at the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education.

Mr Jones is getting into his stride. The members, he tells the audience of about 35, are angry. "Black members are angry. Disabled members are angry.

Women members are angry. They feel they have been let down by our predecessor unions."

Equality issues are clearly high on his list of priorities, but the main thrust of his rhetoric centres on involvement and participation. "It's not about engaging current activists. It's about engaging those who are not current activists."

He wins polite applause, though it is a fair bet that most of those listening are in the former category.

Mr Jones makes no bones about where he stands. He is the left candidate. So he might expect the union's main left-wing organisation, the UCU Left, would be behind him. But no. It has decided to support Mr Kline, whose credentials as a left-winger might seem thin to some.

Its reason can be found in a flier handed out at the meeting: "We need to be clear that Sally Hunt is the preferred candidate of Number 10," it declares. The message is clear: my enemy's enemy is my friend. Ms Hunt is the right-winger. Mr Kline, the UCU Left thinks, can best defeat her and so gets the endorsement.

Indeed, not only has it refused to support its comrade, it has written him out of the picture. In the two sides of the A4 sheet headed "Vote Roger Kline for General Secretary", from which the quotation is taken, Mr Jones gets not a single mention.

He is not hurt by this rejection, he says afterwards in a cafe near Natfhe's old Kings Cross base. In fact, he seems rather sorry for the UCU Left member who was given the task of asking him to withdraw.

But, of course, that does not mean he thinks they are right. The union members will be able to choose their new leader in a postal ballot in February. Under the single transferable vote system, Mr Jones believes they could vote for him and Mr Kline, and still not let Ms Hunt in on a split vote.

He is staying in the fight because he wants to give lecturers a chance to vote for someone like themselves, he says, someone who is not a bureaucrat or an advocate of the "centrist" approach to trade unionism. Neither Mr Kline nor Ms Hunt have been ordinary members of their respective unions, as he has, he notes.

He left school at 15, worked in a factory, then a textile mill. At 18 he was a shop steward. More than once his union activism led to the sack.

He enrolled as a mature student at Manchester Polytechnic, graduating in social science. Since leaving full-time teaching at Burnley College, he has been part-time at Deeside College, but the post has just been made redundant.

"Ultimately, I want to give members more of a voice," he says. "As general secretary, I will ensure the wishes of members come first."

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