National Union of Teachers: left win, now build the rank-and-file campaign

Submitted by Matthew on 5 February, 2010 - 1:16 Author: Pat Murphy

The three-way contest for Deputy General Secretary of the largest teachers union, the NUT, resulted in a major victory for the left. Kevin Courtney, the Camden NUT secretary and leading light in the Socialist Teachers’ Alliance (STA), was elected after an impressive campaign which maximised his support amongst activists and local branch officers of the union.

In the final round of votes Courtney defeated the “Broadly Speaking” candidate Martin Reed by 20,848 votes to 18,236. The third candidate, Hazel Danson of the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union (CDFU), won 8,064 first preference votes and was eliminated after the first round.

In many ways this election bucks the trend of NUT ballots over a long period. The union’s traditional right-wing can often rely on the huge number of mainly smaller and more rural branches to deliver far more nominations than the left. That combined with their position as favoured candidates of the existing leadership has usually ensured that they are favourites in national elections.

Where the left have begun to whittle away at those advantages it has been partly down to careful electoral calculation. In particular the fact that around two thirds of NUT members are women and at least 60% work in primary mean that selecting a primary woman candidate can provide a clear edge. This was undoubtedly part of the CDFU strategy in supporting Hazel Danson.

Of course the left have also relied on the fact that they dominate the major cities and the more active and engaged parts of the union.

This time a male secondary teacher from London has won in an election against a well-known right-winger and a primary woman. Not only that but he came out ahead on first preferences against a candidate with over 30 more nominations than he had.

Kevin’s success owes a lot to a well-run campaign. He worked tirelessly to gather nominations with 63 branches supporting him but the key was that he then used that support to get to members. He made sure that recommendations went from the local officers known and respected by members to urge them to vote for him.

But a slick campaign doesn’t explain it all. Kevin became a realistic candidate in the first place because his profile in the union is that of a campaigner and fighter in a way that is true of few other national figures. He has been the secretary in Camden for over 20 years and in that time has led disputes in numerous schools and campaigns to reduce workload, improve maternity rights and protect pay. He was a key figure in establishing and building the Anti-Academies Alliance and has helped make it a force which no major union or campaign group in education can ignore. It was these qualities that led Workers’ Liberty teachers to support his candidature from the start.

As with all left-wing victories in union elections the hard work starts now. Kevin has to find a way to bring the militant union organiser’s priorities and demands to bear on the caution and conservatism of the bureaucracy. The job of the rest of us is not to sit back and watch but to build the sort of genuine rank and file that can ensure that we don’t rely on the strengths and weaknesses of individual leaders to organise a militant and effectively organised union.
For sure this success takes place against the backdrop of tough challenges for the NUT and other public sector unions, with the most serious threats to pay, conditions, pensions and public services since Thatcherism on the post-election horizon.

On the other hand, the left is increasingly being looked to for a lead in defending teachers. We now have Christine Blower (ex-CDFU) and Kevin Courtney (STA) in the two leading positions in the union, and a majority (albeit thin) on the National Executive. The question for the months and years ahead is whether this left is up to the job of defending teachers and working with other public sector workers to make a stand for public services. If not it will be hard for a left in such a strong position to blame “the bureaucracy”. If we are up to the job, however, it will be a major boost for socialists across the labour movement.

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