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
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
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
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