McAvoy aims to sideline Left with ballots

5th April 1996 at 01:00
Frances Rafferty reports on score settling at the National Union of Teachers conference.

Last year in Blackpool, Doug McAvoy, speaking from the platform, lambasted conference delegates for pursuing their own political agenda rather than representing the views of their members. This year, the general secretary is fighting back with a radical solution.

His proposal for one member one vote on all major policy decisions is unprecedented among other unions, and is intended to blunt the influence of far-Left activists in the National Union of Teachers.

These planned changes will inevitably dominate the debate and bar-room discussions in Cardiff this Easter. For Mr McAvoy will be attempting, in his own words, to get turkeys to vote for Christmas.

He can expect a tough conference. There are scores to settle and the Left has been strengthened in the recent election of the national executive. Malcolm Horne, one of the executive's longest-serving members and a McAvoy loyalist, has lost his seat.

The general secretary will also have to deal with a president, Carole Regan, and vice-president, Christine Blower, who do not support his reforms.

Last year, the NUT gained opprobrium after Labour's education spokesman, David Blunkett, and his guide dog were jostled by protesting delegates.

For Mr McAvoy, the conference went from bad to worse with the executive being out-voted on every issue and the leadership being left with a conference call for a one-day strike over class sizes and a conference on pay.

Mr McAvoy extricated himself from these commitments by balloting the wider membership and having both overturned. One of his more loyal lieutenants explained: "Conference may make policy or call for action but it doesn't have to make it work. A union which threatens action and then finds its membership is not interested is made to look foolish."

Mr McAvoy would like to see a situation where a local association must ballot all its members before sending a motion to annual conference. In turn, conference decisions would then have to be ratified by a national ballot of all members. He also wants the union's executive to be able to change the union's rules (if backed by a national ballot).

He said: "If these changes go through, then this union can proudly say our policies represent the wishes of the whole membership and are not policies that result from very small meetings of a limited number of local associations that are then adopted by conference which, on the record of last year, was shown to be not representative. And, if it wasn't representative last year, why should it be this year?" The changes, he said, are not meant as an attack on local associations. But his opponents do not agree. They say a national ballot gives the leadership the unfair advantage of promoting its position with literature to support it.

There is also concern that those who attend local associations and do most of the union's work will see union policy being shaped by people who make no other input than writing crosses on ballot forms.

One activist said: "When they announced the ballot on whether to strike over class size, they had already had their campaign literature printed. Local associations cannot react as quickly to put another view forward."

Critics also point to the cost involved. A full membership ballot, including printed material and administration, can cost in the region of Pounds 100, 000 a shot. The general secretary says this is negligible. "The NUT claims the drop in teacher motivation is connected to the profession losing its ownership of the curriculum and pay negotiationIWe should not allow them to lose ownership of their union," Mr McAvoy said.

The plan could backfire, according to one union observer: "The risk is low participation and members contracting ballotitis - that well known disease where people get bored with having to vote too often."

Mark Slater, a member of the NUT executive, is not convinced by Mr McAvoy's approach. He said: "There do need to be changes in the union's structure and getting more people involved in the union must be a priority. But there are other ways: for example, local associations setting up brief school-based meetings on particular issues. "I would prefer a working party to be set up to look at a variety of strategies," he said.

The internal reforms debates straddle the conference agenda and will be the focus of the fight between the two wings in the union. Both sides predict a close vote, but the Left believe they have the edge.

While Easter conference news coverage has given the NUT a reputation for being an extreme union, its leader is much more moderate. On many issues, for example OFSTED inspections, which are a major concern at all the teacher conferences, it is Nigel de Gruchy, Mr McAvoy's rival at the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, who is more gung-ho.

There could be an attempt at conference to vote for non-cooperation with inspections. Mr McAvoy would not support it. He said: "There will be a lot of anger. Chris Woodhead [the Chief Inspector] has inflamed the situation and caused the hostility. His own staff are unhappy with the way he has been operating.

"But to oppose inspection flies in the face of public opinion. The union's case will be advanced if at conference there is an acceptance of the need for some system of quality assurance and a measure of school effectiveness. "

He said the union must fight for a system that is not hostile to schools and one which offers advice and support once weaknesses have been identified.

There will also be calls for national curriculum test boycotts. Teachers feel betrayed by the Education Secretary's decision to go ahead with key stage 2 test league tables, despite assurances that she would wait until they bedded down.

Mr McAvoy is against further action. He said: "The workload boycott is still on and can be invoked if members come to us saying it has increased again. But I think it would be wrong for teachers who do not teach key stage 2 to make decisions about action."

He may also be wary about the reception given to conference guests. Activists say the leadership has tried to fill up time with speakers such as Gillian Shephard and David Blunkett to stifle embarrassing debate.

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