Build a strong, fighting union – appeal to the left of the ‘NEU Left’

Sheila Caffrey, Candidate for NEU vice-president

I have stood for election as vice-president of the National Education Union (NEU) because I believe we need a strong, democratic, fighting leadership for our union.

That is particularly important now, as this is a general election year. It is essential that we have a leadership that builds on the magnificent action and growth of our union last year; that puts forward clear demands and prepares members for the serious action necessary to win them, no matter who is in government.

The current leadership of our union comes from the ‘NEU Left’ grouping. Members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the NEU have campaigned for Ed Harlow and Sarah Kilpatrick for vice-presidents, the candidates backed by the NEU Left, of which they are a part.


Rightly in an election, members ask questions about the record of candidates. SWP members have justified their support for the NEU Left candidates, against me, by using the fact that I was the only National Executive member at its December meeting to abstain on the proposal for the indicative ballot that is about to start – without saying that this was because I did not believe that the leadership was presenting a serious, strong enough strategy to win our campaign.

I spoke in the meeting to raise my concerns about spreading out the ballots, which would result in action not being taken till late in the summer term. I abstained when it was clear that the indicative ballot was going to be agreed, as I wanted to register my determination for a real fight. This is reflected in the fact that I am campaigning hard for the biggest possible ‘Yes’ vote in the indicative ballot. The SWP is dishonestly trying to justify its support for those in the union who aren’t really up for a fight. 

I am the only vice-president candidate who is an elected Exec member. Neither Ed nor Sarah were re-elected to the Exec that took office in September 2023. But both Ed and Sarah were on the Exec from 2021-23, as was I.

Serious strategy

Since I was elected on a fighting programme in 2021, I have, along with other Socialist Party members on the Exec, consistently argued for a serious strategy to prepare for national action. That has included campaigning for the inclusion of support staff – we have to be a union that fights for all our members.

This followed the campaign of Martin Powell-Davies for NEU Deputy General Secretary in 2020-21, under the slogan ‘Leading from the front, building from below’.

At that stage, particularly under the blows of the Tory anti-union legislation which insists on high turnout thresholds in ballots for action, others on the left in the NEU, including the SWP, essentially believed that national action would be effectively impossible and were arguing that what was necessary was to increase organisation at a local level, and to take action locally.

But in the Socialist Party we believe that building density and action at a local level cannot be divorced from a bold lead from the top as well, which has a big effect on building confidence and membership. The magnificent strike action of last year shows what’s possible.

More could have been won

When, in the summer of last year, following our brilliant and historic strike action, the leadership of the union wanted to settle for 6.5%, we in the Socialist Party believed that more could be won. We understood that no education worker takes action lightly and that our action had managed to force the Tories back, but we warned that, contrary to what the Tories and the union leadership in the NEU Left were arguing, the pay rise was not fully funded.

The NEU Left leadership was split. The SWP agreed with our position and launched ‘Educators Say No’. But Ed Harlow and Sarah Kilpatrick were on the other side of the split. They both voted to prematurely end the pay campaign. 

After we returned to school in the autumn of 2023 to the news that the Tories had made a ‘mistake’ and the funding was even less than promised, in the September Exec I proposed that we should use our existing strike mandate to prepare to fight again. Again, the SWP agreed with this, but the NEU Left was split and the majority rejected this approach.

Covering for serious mistakes

The SWP decided that, notwithstanding these serious mistakes of the NEU Left leadership, they would still back its candidates in this vice-president election, against me. In our view it is wrong of the SWP to continue to cover up for mistakes, and particularly to turn their fire instead on the voices in the union who are campaigning for a more serious fighting lead, deliberately distorting our record.

SWP members will say that it is important to keep a ‘left’ together in the union. Yes – but is this a true left force?

We agree that bringing together those who want a serious and fighting union in a democratic broad left body is very important – even when a left leadership is elected. A left force in the union, organised at all levels, would be able to explain and fight for the agreed policies of the union, and would ensure a genuine flow of discussion and debate among and between the members and leaders.

Also, the leadership of any union comes under enormous pressure from the employers, the government, and the bosses’ media, to hold back the members. With the prospect of a Starmer-led Labour government at some point this year, the leadership of the union will come under tremendous pressure to water down demands and not ‘rock the boat’ by fighting for its members – before and after a general election. It is vital that even a left leadership feels the organised counter-pressure of the members, and is held to account.

New left needed in NEU

But when a ‘left’ leadership is split and proves itself unable to offer a lead at the most crucial of moments, it raises the need for a new left to be built. In 2023, when there had been the biggest strike action in the union in decades, that succeeded in mobilising thousands more education workers into the union and stepping forward as reps; that had the weak and divided Tory government on the ropes, forced into four ‘final’ offers – for the left to be split, to not be able to give a lead at that point, demonstrates the fact that a new left grouping is needed.

In the PCS union, where a similar situation has been posed, and where Socialist Party members have been working with other activists in the union to build a new broad left that can challenge for leadership, the SWP has eventually come out of the ruling ‘Left Unity’ group (the equivalent to NEU Left). That led to all SWP members who were on the PCS National Executive Committee resigning from the party, but at least the SWP as a party recognised that it could not go on providing a left cover for the mistakes of the union leadership.

Instead of deliberately distorting my record to justify staying in the NEU Left, the SWP should withdraw from NEU Left and join with us and others in campaigning to build a genuine, democratic left in the NEU.