Why We Need Contested Branch Elections in UCU
Number 96: #USSbriefs96
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This month local branches of the University and College Union (UCU) up and down the country held their Annual General Meetings (AGMs), and elected new officers to their committees. I say ‘elected’, but there seems to have been precious little electioneering going on. Of the ten largest branches in our union, I know of only one that held a contested election this year.* On occasion, committee members may believe that it is in the branch’s best interests to avoid an election, and go to great lengths to avoid one. Put simply, the UCU does not have a culture of internal branch elections.
To be fair, unions and their members have a lot on their plates right now. Even in a normal year, those who take an active role in their branches are often seriously stretched. Is holding and fighting an election really a worthwhile commitment of time and energy? In this USSbrief, I argue that it is. We need contested elections in our local branches to make sure we’re guided by our membership, holding committee members to account, and developing a robust democratic culture on our campuses.
As a few moments scrolling through UCU Twitter will make blindingly obvious, members of our union disagree about a lot of things. They certainly disagree about the strategies and approaches that the union should adopt, and often about the kinds of things we’re trying to achieve. When rank-and-file members are given the chance to express a preference about those kinds of things by voting — as they were when Jo Grady ran for the office of General Secretary last year — they come out and take it.
Without contested elections at branch level, though, most ordinary members find themselves left out of decision-making. There’s a reason branches don’t hold their General Members’ Meetings in stadium venues, even when they have thousands of members: most members can’t and don’t turn up to them. Even if they could, the procedure and politics of making branch policy through such meetings is complicated, and not necessarily effective. Electing the person who best represents your views isn’t always that straightforward either, but it’s dramatically more accessible. We just need to give people a choice.
Contested elections are just that, contests. That can make people uneasy, considering how small and close-knit communities in local branches often are. Wouldn’t we rather work on a consensus basis? The problem is that the process of constructing that consensus runs directly up against giving ordinary members a say. It means the majority that matters is the one on the committee itself — not the one among the membership. Committee members tend to be the best-informed and the most dedicated members in the branch, and members owe every one of them a debt of gratitude. But if we want our branches to be democratic, it’s not good enough to simply leave them to it.
Disagreements don’t actually stop inside the committee, anyway. Making a show of consensus and unity is an active decision, often taken for good reasons. Nobody wants a branch that’s constantly fighting itself. The problem arises when the demand for consensus means that different options never actually get presented to members — or when private disagreements fester into resentment behind closed doors. Open elections won’t solve all our issues, but they are far healthier than clandestine manoeuvring under the cover of consensus.
One of the most important tasks in any branch is reaching out to ordinary members, getting them engaged in the struggle that the union wages, and helping them develop a coherent set of attitudes towards it. The huge effort it took to get the vote out in last year’s strike ballots shows how much work is needed to get members to take their membership seriously. Elections create a regular and accessible point of engagement that could be a springboard to greater participation.
To win a contested election, candidates need to find ways of catching people’s imagination and convincing them to think about the issues. They need to build a bigger coalition than their rivals, by speaking to the interests of different groups of voters. They also need to make successful arguments, confronting alternative approaches. All these pressures help to generate a democratic culture, one that actively develops the collective intellect and spirit as well as drawing on it.
Of course, all this paints a rosy picture of democracy in action. It doesn’t work that way in systems (like the USA and the UK) where gerrymandering, voter suppression, big-money advertising, and a captive media hold sway over the process. If elections were to become more prevalent in UCU branches, members will need to watch out for the emergence of our own versions of these problems. Before we get there, however, local members will first have to show commitment to the idea of branch elections.
How could we start moving towards a situation where most branches hold contested elections every year? First, members would need to be aware of what is at stake by holding elections. In every local branch, personal relationships are on the line so setting expectations around running for election is crucial. Members need to feel comfortable about running, and reassured that the system is transparent and fair. Training for Returning Officers and public Codes of Conduct surrounding elections would be useful and practical steps towards that goal. Most importantly, branches should make sure their rules allow for these elections to be held through online voting.
We should also make sure members know that contesting an election, whether or not they win, is an act of service to the union. UCU’s central communications should include such encouragements as branch AGM season approaches. Technical support and advice for candidates could also be made available centrally. Such support should be targeted at overcoming potential barriers to access, especially for first-time candidates and those from under-represented groups.
Effective advocacy for democratic structures in our universities and colleges requires commitment to such structures inside our own union, and to start building up the habits that sustain democracy. That means welcoming and encouraging regular, contested elections — or coming up with an alternative that actually seeks to engage the majority of members.
We already know that national UCU elections can be moments of inspiration and mobilisation. At branch level, the issues are closer to each member’s experience and interests. There is no good reason we cannot start to build democracy in our own backyards, and use that process as the foundation for stronger democracy throughout UCU.
* I contacted branch administrators at UCL, Manchester, Bristol, KCL, Edinburgh, Open University, Leeds, Sheffield, Glasgow, and Cardiff. Seven of those got back to me and of those, only Cardiff had held (or planned to hold) a contested election this year. Two responding branches had last held elections in 2018, one in 2016, and three others hadn’t held any elections in recent memory.
This paper represents the views of the author only. The author believes all information to be reliable and accurate; if any errors are found please contact us so that we can correct them. We welcome discussion of the points raised and suggest that discussants use Twitter with the hashtag #USSbriefs96 ; the author will try to respond as appropriate. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.