UCU, war and the backlash – weekly briefing

Alex Snowdon on political trade unionism under attack and Starmer’s official opposition to the left

The vote for an anti-war motion at UCU Congress last weekend led to a week of indignation and denunciation from those who support UK foreign policy on Ukraine (and more widely). It was no great surprise that such people took to twitter to smear, mis-represent and deride the UCU delegates. It was perhaps a little surprising, however, to find the union’s own general secretary joining the chorus of contempt.

The vitriol directed at UCU delegates means that anyone checking the text of the motion might be surprised at how reasonable it is. It notes the massive loss of life in Ukraine, calls for a peaceful resolution (including the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops), and condemns Russia’s invasion. It makes the crucial point that any trade union should make on questions of war: that it is working class people who are killed, wounded or displaced.

The motion also points out that Nato’s actions in response have served to escalate the conflict, noting that Nato is not a progressive force (it is an alliance of Western states, dominated by US imperialism, so you might hope this wouldn’t be too controversial). It calls for our own government to stop arming Ukraine and reaffirms the union’s support for Stop the War and CND.

This is very sensible and balanced. It is refreshing that a union conference discussed, debated and passed such a motion. Ukraine has proved a divisive issue within the unions and, although there are large numbers agreeing with the sentiments in the motion passed by UCU delegates, other unions have not passed anything similar through their conferences. The vote was therefore a welcome breakthrough for anti-war politics in the trade union movement.

Some critics of the vote have tried to argue that unions should not interfere in such matters, but should instead stick to pay and conditions. This is unlikely to be an honest, sincere argument: the same people would surely be happy to see unions passing pro-Nato motions, and they certainly acknowledge that union conferences debate a wide range of issues. It would be a boring 3-day conference that devoted itself entirely to the current industrial dispute.

There is a long tradition of unions supporting anti-war positions and involving themselves in protests on foreign policy issues. During the ‘War on Terror’, many unions in Britain backed the anti-war movement and joined demonstrations, especially over the war in Iraq. Our unions have a strong track record of opposition to war, militarism and nuclear weapons, and of international solidarity more broadly, exemplified in the three motions on Palestine passed at UCU Congress.

As Lindsey argued in last week’s briefing, the trade unions are weakened by refusing to oppose the government on major foreign policy issues. The same government that attacks workers at home is fanning the flames of war abroad. It is the same Tories who are committed to slashing our pay who are calling for higher arms spending. We are stronger if we are consistent in challenging this government and its priorities.

For one thing, we are better able to challenge the ‘we can’t afford it’ line of argument against inflation-matching pay rises if are clear about rejecting higher arms spending. We shouldn’t hesitate to say that money spent on weapons and war should instead be directed to schools and hospitals. Last September’s narrow vote at the TUC to approve increased military spending was self-destructive for unions. The UCU vote was a step in the direction of reversing that shameful error.

Stop the War’s statement congratulating UCU delegates noted that ‘Nato’s escalation in response has turned Ukraine into a battleground between the great powers’. This comment goes to the heart of the matter: Ukraine has become the site of a proxy war between rival imperialisms. It is a question of inter-imperialist rivalry, not merely one-sided Russian aggression. This is the truth that supporters of the government’s position are determined to evade.

The UK is centrally involved. Rishi Sunak has authorised drones and tanks going to Ukraine, with a promise to provide training for Ukraine’s fighter pilots. Such moves can only prolong the killing in Ukraine while raising the stakes and threatening a widening of the conflict. Our government should instead be seeking negotiations and de-escalation. While we condemn both sides in imperialist rivalry, we have a special duty in the UK to hold our own government to account.

The odd twist in the backlash against UCU’s vote was the intervention from Jo Grady, the union’s general secretary. She was politically wrong to distance herself from the motion, but it was also a very serious affront to union democracy to use the union’s official social media accounts to attack a democratic decision by the union. This has wider significance for the union movement – we must insist that union officials follow through on democratic decisions, rather than publicly undermining them.

In Grady’s case it is part of a pattern of behaviour. She has repeatedly attacked her own union’s lay activist structures and publicly disagreed with their decisions. Her latest intervention is clearly about more than Ukraine: she is attempting to attack the left on an issue that she believes, wrongly, it is isolated.

This is one example of how, in a number of unions, tensions have developed between the leadership and many of the grassroots activists. On Saturday, I’ll be heading to the rank and file organising conference ‘How We Fight, How We Win’ in London. It can contribute to strengthening the political and strategic independence of rank and file networks in our unions. This is crucial if we are going to make advances – whether on pay or big political issues – despite the weaknesses of some union leaders.

Labour’s witch-hunt

When Jo Grady’s statement about the Ukraine motion was tweeted, quite a few replies or comments made the same observation: isn’t this the sort of behaviour we would expect from the Labour Party apparatus, not our union leaders? Labour’s authoritarianism has become extreme. A fresh example – and an especially ridiculous one – has been provided in recent days, with the refusal to allow Jamie Driscoll to stand as Labour candidate for North East mayor.

On Friday, the current mayor for the North of Tyne combined authority announced that he was being blocked from the shortlist of candidates for mayor of the enlarged regional authority, to be elected next spring. Popular and successful, he has pioneered regional devolution in the north east and is widely regarded as having done a very good job. It was commonly assumed that he would at least be shortlisted. I live in the area Jamie currently oversees and the news is a shock well beyond left-wing circles.

But he is a socialist, so it is not to be. Nobody can have any doubt that it is an entirely political decision geared towards further weakening the left. The alleged crime in this instance is sharing a platform with Ken Loach – lifelong socialist and anti-racist, as well as one of Britain’s greatest film makers, but in the delusional fantasies of the Labour Right a figure associated with antisemitism.

Nobody actually believes that either Loach or Driscoll is antisemitic, but the guilt-by-association dynamic, unmoored from any material reality, which has developed means that it doesn’t matter. It serves as cover for anti-democratic attacks on the left. There has been a huge outpouring of support for the current mayor and there is considerable pressure on Labour to reverse its decision.

If this pressure isn’t enough, I hope that Jamie will stand as an independent candidate and provide a challenge to Starmer’s Labour from the left. As with a potential Jeremy Corbyn campaign in Islington North in the next general election, it would provide a much-needed focus for promoting left-wing alternatives to Tories and Labour alike.

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