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Should I stay or should I go?
This weekend, the Congress of the University and College Union (UCU), the main trade union for UK academics, passed a motion which called on the UK government to stop arming Ukraine and noted that Zelensky aimed to make Ukraine ‘an armed, illiberal outpost of US imperialism’.
Predictably, this was controversial, many resigning from the union. I will be the last to criticize these people. Over the years, UCU has become a byword for the authoritarian and regressive left. There is a longstanding problem with anti-Semitism, the union proposing the commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day without mention of the Jews. UCU’s record on academic freedom is poor; Sussex activists drove gender critical philosopher Kathleen Stock from her job.
For the moment, I will not resign, my dilemma enabling reflection on the past and future trajectories of the left. The case of UCU evokes historic developments in the Labour Party. In 2019, I resigned from the party over the Corbyn leadership – like supporters of the UCU motion, Corbyn was associated with the illiberal Stop the War movement – and voted for the Liberal Democrats in the 2019 general election. I was sympathetic to the Labour MPs who formed the breakaway Change UK, urging others to join them.
This position may have aged poorly. The Corbyn years felt like the deepest nadir, but turned out to be a medium-term defeat, moderates recovering the party. I continue to be disturbed by the extent of Keir Starmer’s involvement in Corbynism – to a degree which others were not, he was central to it – but cannot find much fault with those moderates who stayed on the backbenches. Had these people resigned during the Corbyn years, a moderate Labour Party would never have achieved its current position, comfortably leading the Conservative Party and marginalizing the hard left. Significantly, many Change UK members have rejoined the Labour Party.
This experience informs my attitude towards UCU. There is talk of the formation of a moderate union, yet it is difficult to believe that anything will come of this; start-up costs are too high. In these circumstances, it may be better to stay and fight. As many have remarked, resignation cedes further ground to extremists.
There are important differences between parties and unions. Despite their malevolence, UCU militants have tiny public influence. By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn almost became prime minister. Both sides can appeal to this difference – some who remained in Labour did so with the aim of restraining Corbyn – but I thought (and still think) that the need to stop Corbyn necessitated unequivocal action.
In the event of industrial action, resignation from UCU requires one to cross a picket line. I would not rule this out (see below), but am extremely reluctant to do so. In a way that voting for another party does not, crossing a picket line undermines workers’ rights.
Yet this begs the question; in which circumstances would I resign? If I would never do this, it hands carte blanche to my opponents. ‘Stay and fight’ can become a parody of itself. If there is no chance of a foul and offensive union ever changing – and many would argue this point has been reached – it is better to resign; to some extent, membership involves endorsement of the union as a whole.
Of course, ‘staying and fighting’ entails fighting! Today on Twitter, someone asked me to act as a Cardiff University delegate at next year’s Congress. Apparently, Cardiff UCU sent a mere two delegates to this year’s event (out of a possible six). I may become more involved in my branch, but family and work duties preclude greater commitment. Moreover, I do not wish to spend time arguing with people, involvement in such disputes being scarring.
Other moderates feel like this. Being brutally honest, this may be the crux of the problem.
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