Who should be UCU’s next general secretary?

As the UCU general secretary elections get underway, rs21 members in UCU discuss the candidates and offer their voting recommendations.

UCU picket in Central London. Credit: Steve Eason/Flickr

Voting has opened in UCU’s general secretary election. Members in higher education are still exhausted following the end of the marking boycott last summer, employers are embarking on waves of redundancies, minimum service levels are threatened throughout our sectors, and staff are coming under attack for expressing solidarity with the people of Palestine.

In the face of such threats, building rank-and-file militancy, organisation and resilience must be the priority for all socialists in UCU. But abstention – or the dismissal of this election as unimportant – is not an option. Whichever of the four candidates wins will have significant power over the direction that our union takes going forward, particularly given the ground laid by the incumbent. They will have the choice between an accountable, representative approach to leadership which opens space for rank-and-file activity to flourish, or the entrenchment of the current approach of top-down, unilateral decrees aimed at overriding lay democratic structures.

While the red-baiting wing of our union might decry this intervention, we think it’s right that groups, factions and caucuses in the UCU discuss perspectives and communicate them openly with the membership as a whole.

rs21 members in UCU agree that none of the candidates meet all the requirements we think are needed in a general secretary. Each comes with drawbacks based on their platforms, their histories or their politics. Nonetheless, we have no choice but to make a choice, and so we present here an analysis of each candidate and our voting recommendations, and call for the only prospect we have for transforming our union and our workplaces: rank-and-file organisation across FE and HE sectors.

Jo Grady, the incumbent

The last year-and-a-half has seen unprecedented struggle in higher education – and corresponding efforts at sabotage from Jo Grady and her supporters in the union’s senior bureaucracy. In late 2022, following a vote by the Higher Education Committee (HEC) to use our first ever aggregated mandate to take indefinite strike action, the bureaucracy insisted that HEC members keep this decision to themselves for ambiguous legal reasons, only for Grady to announce it herself in a video on Twitter denouncing the decision. This set the tone for months of internal manoeuvring while members engaged in a major struggle with employers.

Multiple e-ballots consisting of poorly-worded, leading questions; the exclusion of elected lay negotiators from key negotiations; a heavy reliance on social media at the expense of sincere engagement with members; collapsing industrial relations with UCU’s own staff; unilaterally pausing strike action and consulting on it afterwards – each of these is emblematic of Grady’s leadership. More recently, Grady is responsible for ignoring the democratic decision of HE Sector Conference for a summer reballot, leaving members vulnerable at the end of the Marking & Assessment boycott and with no mandate as redundancies and cuts sweep the sector.

Re-election for another five year term would be a mandate to continue with this approach and to extend it to the growing number of disputes in further education. It is no wonder that the right wing of the union have fallen into lockstep behind Grady – including those who opposed her candidacy in 2019 – determined as they always have been to push capitulation and partnership with employers.

Of course, in the event of Grady’s re-election, we will continue to organise in our workplaces and branches. But any such organisation is always at risk under a general secretary who is prepared to pull the plug on strike action with no consultation.

We do not recommend voting for Grady.

Saira Weiner, UCU Left

UCU Left is the largest organised faction within the union, but nonetheless many were surprised to hear that a UCU Left candidate would stand in this election given that it was already known that Vicky Blake (see below) was planning to challenge Grady from the independent left. As we understand it, there was dissent within UCU Left over whether to stand a candidate at all, but Saira Weiner was ultimately selected.

As revolutionary socialists, we might be expected to prefer a revolutionary socialist candidate like Weiner. Indeed, there is little in her manifesto to disagree with – particularly on the creation of rank-and-file strike committees, locally and nationally, to steer action. On the one hand, Weiner has a history as a good organiser locally and in her time on the NEC. We work with members of UCU Left regularly in our branches and beyond. Yet on the other hand, there remain questions of accountability associated with her membership of the Socialist Workers Party, due to its appalling handling of allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against a leading member.

UCU Left has played a significant role in UCU, providing an organisational and political space for left activists. However, and despite the valuable work of some of its members in elected roles, its tactics fail to resonate with a wider layer of members. An effective rank and file current will need a broader base. We will continue to work with UCU Left members, but the imperative has to be to build this broader base and we hope to see UCU Left members engaging with this.

We recommend giving a second preference vote to Weiner.

Ewan McGaughey, independent

Ewan McGaughey seems confused as to where he is and what he is doing. His manifesto lays out his vision for a transformed higher education sector – all well and good, except that the general secretary of UCU is not the chief executive of UCEA. The general secretary’s job is to enact and represent the decisions made by UCU members, and while it is valuable to have a strong sense of a candidate’s ideals, that means nothing without concrete detail on how they will act as general secretary.

The extent of detail provided by McGaughey in this regard consist of vague promises to improve UCU’s IT systems to win ballots, to ‘lead by example’ in the hope of influencing employers, such as by ensuring that all electricity used by UCU is renewable, and to increase our use of – or reliance on – legal action. Such an approach suggests an upside down conception of trade unionism, where the central union apparatus is its most important component, rather than its grassroots.

We do not advocate voting for McGaughey.

Vicky Blake, independent

Vicky Blake is the candidate with the greatest chance of unseating Grady. She comes from the left – having been a proponent of discontinuous indefinite strike action, striking for four days each week in a rotating pattern as a means of ensuring some income for strikers – but without the historical baggage carried by Weiner, and thus with a greater likelihood of appealing to wider sections of the membership. She is an experienced organiser, negotiator and activist at multiple levels of the union, and her manifesto makes commitments to respect democratic structures, to recognise branches as the foundation of UCU, and to connect members of different branches to one another in organising efforts. There is potential for increasing workers’ self-activity under such arrangements – certainly more than exists under the incumbent.

However, significant concerns exist around Blake’s politics, particularly her ambiguous approach to Palestinian liberation. Her opposition to motions in solidarity with Palestinian resistance within her branch, and support in her manifesto for Standing Together – an organisation since proscribed by the BDS Movement – indicate a tendency towards or concession of ground to the forces of liberal Zionism and normalisation, particularly when compared to Blake’s explicit support for armed resistance in Ukraine. We have no truck with this, and will oppose any efforts within our union to normalise settler-colonialism under any general secretary.  At a time when Palestinian members and those in solidarity are under continual attack, a clear and unequivocal position is required.

There are also risks related to Blake’s lack of a defined political base or anchor. In 2019, some of us celebrated Grady’s victory as an independent candidate on the back of an upsurge in rank-and-file activity. Since then we have seen nothing but a drift to the right, with Grady now firmly aligned with the most conservative sections of UCU bureaucracy. Without consistent, organised and explicit pressure from activists at branch level, there is a risk of history repeating.

We recommend voting for Blake as first preference for two reasons: firstly, that she offers strong potential for opening space for rank-and-file members to shape union strategy and policy, including on international issues; and secondly, in practical terms, because she is the most likely candidate to defeat Grady from the left. This critical support, however, comes with crucial caveats. Most significantly, a truly member-led union can only be built from below. The space that a Blake win would open up needs to be filled, and we will need to redouble our efforts to build an independent organisation of rank-and-file militants, capable of shaping strategy from below. This is the task that faces us, regardless of the result of this contest.


The UCU Rank and File Network, which rs21 participates in, has made voting recommendations for NEC and other elections taking place in the union, available here.

1 COMMENT

  1. Bad decision. Palestine is a crucial issue, with an ongoing genocide, with pro-palestine activists getting victimised, and the campuses being a key ideological battleground. A UCU gen sec who can’t be relied on would be a millstone round everyone’s neck. You’re letting the legacy of the battle inside the swp a decade ago cloud your judgement.

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