Left makes gains

The National Union of Teachers met in Bournemouth over Easter weekend for its annual conference. In many respects it was successful for those on the left of the union, with a number of important victories won on the floor. In marked contrast to the previous years, the forces of the left were able to effectively challenge the strategy of the broad left (read 'rightwing') grouping that controls the national executive. Conference overturned last year's executive-sponsored decision on pay, with the union now committed again to fight for a 10% pay increase for all teachers and to reject any link between pay and performance. Furthermore, conference also voted to instruct the executive to ballot the membership in order to reinstate the union's boycott of standard assessment tests, to introduce a veto over any increasing demands on teacher working time and to refuse to cover for absent colleagues beyond the first day. Significantly too, conference voted down by a huge majority an amendment by the executive to water down the union's campaign for an inner London allowance of at least £6,000. To what degree the executive will carry out these decisions remains to be seen. Clearly the strike and demonstration by London teachers on March 14 has done much to boost the confidence of members in the capital. With graphic accounts of the disintegration of state education in London, delegates were given a lead by the left and a vision of what is possible if teachers stand up and fight for a decent education system. Undoubtedly the strike in London has served to act as a bridge to unite members throughout England and Wales, as shown by other motions passed. Unfortunately, in the contributions of some on the left - especially from Socialist Workers Party comrades - the "angry" and "brilliant" strike in London was used as a battering ram on any motion under discussion. However, it is not wise to talk to an NUT conference in the breathless language of an SWP or Globalise Resistance rally, and this had counterproductive effects sometimes. This was particularly apparent in the debate on the possible merger of the NUT with the two other major unions, the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. With the executive leading this campaign, it provided an opportunity for the left to try to ensure that it takes place in a non-bureaucratic way and not as a stitch-up between union leaders. Yet interventions centring around the strike or the 'spirit of Barcelona' naturally failed to emphasise the necessity of creating a merged union that is democratic and provides rights for local branches. Consequently, by a large majority, the executive won endorsement for its approach to unity and the left lost its opportunity to present an alternative strategy. The issue of one union for teachers is crucial, for whilst disunity prevails teachers will always be hamstrung in their efforts to take the most effective action. Yet the NUT left is currently being outmanoeuvred by Doug McAvoy, the general secretary. There is a real desire for unity amongst teachers in all three unions and McAvoy is playing on this - to the extent that he rules out any action not sanctioned by the other two unions. This is simply a cunning device to prevent any action at all in the NUT. Some sections of the left are, however, in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In recognising McAvoy's tactics, they have, alas, put themselves in the position where they appear to many delegates as inconsistent advocates of one union for teachers. An example is the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, its delegates voting against an executive-amended motion on unity, which failed to spell out certain guarantees. Commendably, SWP delegates, despite their foolish approach to the debate, did not go down this road, but the motion was defeated. Whether a merger takes place on the left's terms or not, the traditional demand of 'one industry, one union' is still a powerful one, even when bureaucrats stitch up mergers. A recent example of such being the bureaucratic merger of the civil service unions, whose members then went on to elect Mark Serwotka as general secretary, someone who proudly calls himself a revolutionary socialist. As ever, conference fringe meetings were packed with left events. Amongst the best attended included a debate on the pitfalls of the 35-hour week introduced in Scotland, where Allan Armstrong, a member of the NUT's sister union in Scotland, spoke. Greg Tucker, a leading RMT and Socialist Alliance activist, spoke to teachers on the rising wave of trade union militancy. At another packed meeting, two Palestinians shared a platform with speakers including the SA's Mike Marqusee, billed as a member of the Stop the War Coalition. In a powerful and moving description of recent events, one of the Palestinian speakers noted how their present demands accounted for only 22% of the territory that made up Palestine before 1947. Curiously in an intervention from the floor, one comrade, to much applause, argued that this demand could not possibly be achieved and, therefore, Palestinians ought to go back to their 'realistic' traditional demand for the whole (100%) of Israel to be transferred to Palestinian control. The logic of such an argument was lost on me. A comrade from the International Socialist Group cheerfully noted the 'excellent' motion passed at the recent Scottish Socialist Party conference for a democratic, secular state in which Palestinians and Israelis live together. One wonders why the SSP prescription for unity within the same state cannot be applied to the peoples of Scotland, Wales and England. Of some interest was a meeting of about 20 people held by the AWL on uniting public sector workers. Thankfully devoid of SWP-type ranting about the supposed 'sea change' that has just occurred in the working class, both speakers - Pat Murphy and John Bloxham - sensibly noted that their had been a modest rise in working class militancy. Although they recognised that such a mood could be quickly blown away, both comrades spoke of the urgent need for the left to relate to this positively. It was also noted how the existing left caucuses in the unions were insufficiently geared to organising the rank and file. A lengthy and fraternal discussion ensued. A member of the CPGB noted how, other than as an aside, both speakers had failed to consider the role of the Socialist Alliance in organising the left in the unions. With a successful 1,000-strong trade union conference, it was now time for Socialist Alliance members to build upon this to establish effective trade union fractions. The intention of this being not to supplant existing left caucuses, but to give a lead. With a programme for the trade unions, the SA had the potential to rally militant workers behind a strategy that combined an emphasis on the rank and file with a programme to control and renew the leadership. Several AWL members took up the issue. Clearly there was some division. Some comrades viewed the SA pessimistically or as having not much of a role inside the trade unions. Others recognised the potential role for the SA. Nevertheless, it was difficult not to draw the conclusion that the AWL still sees its own unnamed 'party' project as being the overriding priority. On the final night of conference, the Socialist Alliance held its own fringe event. Attracting about 80 people, the meeting was chaired by Kate Ford (Workers Power) and the speakers were Jane Bassett (SWP) and Liam Conway (AWL). Titled 'Why we need an alternative to New Labour', the meeting covered a wide range of issues and did not merely act as a rally for the coming local elections. The platform speakers, and later comrades from the floor, were keen to emphasise the importance of the SA not just at election time, but also in the various struggles of the working class, including inside the unions. Indeed it was tempting to forget that for much of the time since the 2001 general elections the alliance has been relegated by the SWP to a mere bit-part player, especially in the anti-war movement. Let us hope that renewed enthusiasm continues after the May elections. A contribution from a member of Welsh Socialist Alliance and CPGB thanked the meeting for giving an 'international visitor' the opportunity to speak and wished the SA the best of luck in the forthcoming elections. He also hoped that there would be a speedy merger of our two alliances in the not two distant future - after all if unity is good enough for the NUT, it should be good enough for socialists too. He then went on to argue that the Socialist Alliance must root itself firmly inside the NUT, as in other unions. Indeed the SA must lead the call for the various left factions in the union - the Socialist Teachers Alliance, the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union and the separately organised SWP- to unite in one single organisation. In this way the SA can be seen as the best advocate of left unity and a pole of attraction for union militants. The point was taken up by other comrades. But clearly there are those who are still sceptical about the SA. In her closing remarks, comrade Bassett clearly thought it was premature to talk of left unity in the NUT. The STA, CDFU and the SWP had a "reasonable working relationship" and overcoming divisions was therefore not a priority. One looks forward to the SWP ditching such complacency. Cameron Richards