A Reflection in Scarlet

I have been doing some reflecting. I tell my students that reflection is one of the most difficult things asked of them because it can mean giving way on a position, acknowledging that we are not always right, recognising where we might need to make changes for the better and, in so doing, it challenges us to give something of ourselves away. Reflection makes us just a little bit vulnerable.
With UCU Congress on the horizon, I can feel the bile rising, but why?
I have realised the internal gulf between what I believe, the values I hold at my core and what I am prepared to accept, has widened: there is a growing divide between what I think I might just tolerate to be right and what I know, inside myself, to be right. I need that circle to be squared and I need, for myself, to synchronise my thoughts and feelings.
Everything I do, in my various professional and community roles, is about inclusion; breaking down barriers, building people up and supporting them to get where they need to be.
I deliver training in anti-bullying and on challenging discrimination and hate crime. I do not tolerate it. I challenge all forms of bullying and discrimination in the classroom, in the corridor and in casework, at every contract level. Yet in the last few months, in the worst bullying I have witnessed, I have become weak and I have stood by. In so doing, I have as I would tell my students, become the worst element in the bullying, the audience. As a bystander I have become an enabler; allowing the bullying to continue and escalate. And the similarities with hate speech have been upsetting; the dehumanisation of individuals, the traducing of characters and incitement to vilify, hate and take action.
How have I, a National Executive Committee member, allowed this? What can I do to ensure that no one, not anyone, be they elected or unelected, paid or unpaid, high profile or low profile, is subject to similar abuses?
When Jeremy Corbyn talks about a ‘’kinder, gentler politics’’ that does not start and end with the Front Bench. I think that applies to each and every one of us. Especially me, as a National Executive Committee member, I should be setting a precedent for how I want our members to engage and I, myself, must model kindness and gentleness if they are to be the benchmark for my own political and trade union engagement.
The German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theorises on cheap and costly grace: that we each receive grace regardless, but we should consider for ourselves if it is right to repent on the final day or whether we should try our best on all our days. I am not thinking about how to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but I am thinking about political point scoring. And UCU Congress looms large.
The implications of these behaviours are wider still, and for both Higher and Further Education sectors. If I argue without argument, if I castigate, accuse, traduce and publicly execute my own, then how, how, can I as a professional, defend Higher Education as noble and sublime when I am not promoting myself as I wish to be valued by the employer? If my engagement in debate is not inclusive and the podium is not a safe place for participation, how can I argue our Further Education colleges are beacons of inclusion and defend them?
Like the tortoise and the hare there are two ways to make political points: I can take the shortcut and score cheap points from others by challenging the person, or I can take the longer route and make challenge on the argument itself, which will cost me more in effort. I should lead by modelling and I should welcome the challenge to raise my game: I can debate better, I can debate smarter and I can debate more inclusively. I can try.
I thought I was being inclusive when I took a longstanding colleague to another conference. She enjoyed the social aspect but disengaged from the programme disliking the factional side-lining and aggressive debate. She decided not to engage further and I clearly got that very wrong.
In pushing people to take sides when they are not ready or not wanting to, is to unwittingly push them nearer to a right wing agenda. If the left is not welcoming, if the left is provoking, then the response is to believe that it is not the place for them and so they sit where they look after their own self-interest. I need to find a way to keep hold of the ‘non-politicised’ left; those who don’t identify with ideological frameworks and positions.
Like the Coral Reef, the Left is so rich and diverse, there is so much colour and vitality and yet, the slightest change to the temperature or salinity and this microsystem fractures and it can take years to repair the damage and rebuild.
I am taking another colleague to UCU Congress this year . She is a gorgeous, lovely, lovely teacher, working with some really disadvantaged young women. She has given up a week’s annual leave and time with her husband and children to attend. I am feeling the pressure to ensure that her sacrifices translate into enjoyment and a sense of value and of contribution. I cannot afford to lose an activist and I cannot afford to lose but one member.
In terms of engaging others, the democracy of the union is led by its members. UCU’s democracy allows engagement through branches, through regional and national structures and through equalities routes – that’s several ways in. Turnout in elections has previously been low but I know I am partly to blame in not encouraging more the active involvement of all my members. My lack of drive is not from a lack of democracy but a failure, in me, to drive democratic process. I need to work on this. If I can channel the enthusiasm and new activism in my new members, if I can drive that energy and contribution through established democratic processes, I can hope to mitigate frustrations.
The USS pensions dispute has been fantastic in terms of recruitment, increasing activism and in holding back the employer. But unchannelled activism and disappointed expectations create frustrations which can be projected on to individuals. I am reminded of Spooks – “never forget who your real enemy is”. Lack of proper funding at every level is at the root of it all.
Holding out for a Labour government is, as I see it, UCU’s biggest hope. Our potential new Chancellor who holds the purse strings, our potential new Prime Minister and Education Secretary already work closely with us and provide, as was seen in the USS pensions dispute, strong political support; they respect our elected leadership and invest time in our campaigns. Can I afford to lose that? Should I be playing a longer game? What might be at risk in throwing proverbial babies and bathwater?

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