NEU vice-president – Strong result shows need to organise for a fighting union!

Sean McCauley, NEU Worcestershire district secretary, personal capacity

A fantastic 5,471 votes for a fighting, socialist candidate standing for an activist-led union!

Against enormous odds, Socialist Party member Sheila Caffrey secured a strong first runner-up (two candidates are elected) in the recent National Education Union (NEU) national vice-president elections. Her tremendous campaign had at its heart the pledge to provide a bold lead at the top of the union, while at the same time building the activist, rep-led base of the union.

The machine of the NEU Left (the establishment grouping of which Daniel Kebede, general secretary, and the majority of those on the National Executive are a part) was mobilised to garner support for their two preferred candidates, Sarah Kilpatrick and Ed Harlow. They achieved a greater number of nominations than Sheila from NEU Left-led districts, with public endorsements from the two previous general secretaries. They were elected on 8,949 and 7,942 votes.

Cutting through

It’s obvious, though, that Sheila’s message was able to cut through the big hitters’ rallying cries for Sarah and Ed, to reach the activists, reps and members. Her message resonated with the experiences of members: demands for an above-inflation, fully funded pay rise for all; the reversal of decades of funding cuts, including in SEND (special educational needs and disability) and early years; a new national contract that sets a firm limit on the hours teachers can be expected to work, binding on all employers; an end to supply staff exploitation, with the re-establishment of local authority supply pools; the return of support staff to full-year contracts and winning negotiating rights for support staff.

Sheila and Socialist Party members in local districts, at conference and on the National Executive, have played a vital role, articulating the anger of members. The union has moved from a position in 2021 of the leadership effectively believing that the NEU could never again win a ballot for national action, to one where not only did we beat the undemocratic Tory anti-union ballot thresholds twice last year, but we took eight days of solid strike action to force the government to improve its pay offer.

Maintain pressure

We need to maintain that pressure on the leadership of the union now more than ever. Unfortunately, the election of Sarah and Ed, sitting alongside the current president and past-president, will only strengthen the core at the top of the union that is not up for a serious fight. They voted to postpone strike action in May and June last year; they voted against the early announcement of dates for our June and July action, which would have allowed reps to get trips and transition days moved so turnout could be maximised. Most importantly, they voted to accept the 6.5%, of which at least 3% was not fully funded, when many in the union felt we could have won more.

There is a wide layer of activists asking searching questions of NEU Left supporters in their own districts, at national meetings and at conference. Reps who stepped up during Covid and since have had firsthand experience of organising strike action in their workplaces, and want to know that the union leadership is serious about leading a strong fight and will not step back at the first opportunity.

New left needed

This was demonstrated in July last year during the debate over whether to accept or reject the 6.5%. The number of members who signed up to attend the initial online meeting of the Educators Say No group set up by those on the left of NEU Left, including members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), far exceeded the 1,000 participant capacity.

Yet the opportunity to establish a new activist-led broad left was squandered. Despite breaking with the majority of the NEU Left in that period, the SWP patched up its differences with the rest of the NEU Left and used the Educators Say No group as a place to push the conservative, establishment candidates as ‘pro-strike’ fighters.

Sheila’s vote reflects that frustration amongst a layer of activists and further demonstrates the potential and desire for the establishment of a new activist-led broad left, to help organise the pressure of members on the leadership.

Vote ‘yes’

The NEU is currently holding an online indicative ballot for teachers over pay and funding and will launch the same for support staff in mid-March. Getting those votes out, winning the ballots, and smashing the thresholds are the main focus for us all at the moment.

National conference is fast approaching. It will be there that any decision to move to a formal postal ballot will be taken. The stated aim of the leadership is to take action in the summer term.

We must, however, ensure that there is no backtracking from this in the face of a general election. Although committed to the plan to strike in the summer, Daniel Kebede has previously expressed a desire not to strike until the autumn. Our pay offer will have been implemented by then.

What’s more, there will be substantial pressure exerted on all union leaders by Labour not to ‘rock the boat’ before what is most likely to be a Labour victory. Likewise, if Starmer is victorious, many union tops will want to hold back action, arguing that Labour will work with the unions. We, and most NEU activists, have little faith that Labour will make a difference.

Starmer-led government

Starmer has made it clear that it will be business as usual and that public spending will not change. Let’s not forget that the week before the Tories caved in last year and offered the 6.5% recommended by the School Teachers Review Body, Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow chancellor, went on record saying Labour would not honour it if it were in power!

As Socialist Party members, we will continue to build the strongest fightback by developing a strategy to put forward at the National Executive and to campaign for in our districts, whilst simultaneously reaching out to the 5,500 members who voted for a socialist, activist candidate in this election.

This is a strong base to build a new broad left from, to create a fighting union that can win for all of education and all education workers.