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10 April 1996

Lesson in democracy?

Left-wing delegates at the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference in Cardiff have apparently had a resounding victory by voting against Doug McAvoy's Blair-inspired attempt at introducing one member/one vote postal ballots. The left may be delighted, but McAvoy and the right have had something of a moral victory in accusing activists of failing the 'democracy test'. So what democratic principles are at stake in this skirmish, asks Claire Fox?

Firstly, McAvoy and his fellow bureaucrats have a nerve suggesting that they are on the side of the democratic angels. Their desire to submit all conference decisions to a postal ballot of the whole membership reduces democracy to the marking of an x. Full democracy requires the greatest possible discussion and debate. Collective consideration of the pros and cons of different issues at conferences, branch meetings and geographical area discussions has the potential for allowing informed decision-making.

Suggesting that the more passive involvement of members (that is giving them the opportunity to vote without hearing the arguments) constitutes an extension of democracy, reduces that concept to an empty shell - Dougocracy as one conference wit labelled it. However, my heart sank when I heard the left arguing so passionately to defend the right of self-styled activists to make decisions on behalf of the members.

The left's rejection of approaching the rank and file membership of the union indicates their weakness, a weakness McAvoy and the so-called moderates have been keen to exploit. Their claims that NUT conference is representative are at best gullible, but at worst are a dishonest attempt to cloak their lack of support behind a democratic sheen.

It is important to place this discussion into the broader context of the role of the trade union movement in the 1990s. These days union membership is declining and collective representation is rejected by the majority of people as irrelevant. Where people do experience work-related problems, they tend to tackle them as individuals. There has been an increase in the number of individuals going to industrial tribunals and the courts to deal with disputes in preference to using their trade unions. Individual litigation and representation have replaced the collective industrial action of the past and strikes have declined proportionally.

Against this background, gaining union positions has become easy for anyone who volunteers. The reason so many unions have a vociferous left-wing constituency - so at odds with what else is happening in society - is that the left are gleefully taking up vacant union seats and claiming this means they represent more than their own views. It has become a sad spectacle to hear union officers stand up and claim to represent 500 members here, 350 members there, when by and large they gained their positions on just a handful of votes. The majority of officers are voted in by only a small minority of the membership; worse many gain positions on no votes as posts are uncontested with no-one else standing.

Despite this, the left have taken to finding some solace in their otherwise dramatic decline by this new found power on conference floor. When anyone dares suggest that their real support is tested out by going to the membership, the left panics that its present glory will be exposed for the sham that it really is.

But surely, if activists really do represent members' views, and indeed if they are really active, what have they to fear from a postal ballot? Surely all a ballot would reveal is their support amongst the constituency they claim to represent? If they are so active, why not turn McAvoy's proposal into an advantage and use it to actively campaign in every school for the policies which they claim have a popular mandate. Their reluctance to take the campaign to the nation's staff-rooms smacks of fear of exposure of their lack of support. They do indeed fail the democratic test.

The unsavoury dog-fight in Cardiff does not reflect heart-felt democratic principles amongst either clique of the NUT. But the left must take responsibility for making the likes of Doug McAvoy sound good. The left's sorry defence of undemocratic decision-making by a minority of union hacks shows contempt for ordinary rank and file teachers - people the activists do not trust to agree with their worthy conference motions. But if you cannot win the arguments with your own members, and vote to exclude them from making decisions, then it is democracy which is defeated not Doug McAvoy and his cronies.

Claire Fox is the convenor of the Education Debate course at The WEEK conference.
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