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Source: Jon Pike on Comment is Free
1st June 2006
Natfhe's move to boycott Israeli academics was a gesture forced through by a tiny, SWP-organised minority.
Yes, it's another piece about the Natfhe boycott. But no, I'm not going to rehash the arguments. My intention is to understand what happened at Natfhe conference and to try to explain it to those many people who will be surprised by this decision. I also have a couple of questions commenters can answer.
First, a bit of history. The AUT, my union, voted by a very narrow margin (of four votes) to boycott two Israeli universities, and then, overwhelmingly, to overturn that boycott. What happened between these two votes to make the AUT change its mind? Was it "Zionist pressure"? Was it "slanderous emails"? That's what Steven Rose says. But there is another, more straightforward explanation. Judge for yourself.
At the following universities, AUT branches had meetings of the membership about the boycott between the two meetings of council: Bath, Bristol, Keele, Imperial, Oxford, Warwick, Cambridge, Birmingham, the LSE, Manchester, King's College London, University College London, the Open University, Goldsmiths, London, Leeds, York, Lancaster and Kingston.
The Scottish council of the AUT consulted its branches, debated the matter, supported positive links and opposed a boycott. Thousands of AUT members turned out and voted. Here are three snapshots.
At University College London, where the branch executive is dominated by supporters of the boycott, the boycott resolutions were voted down by 10 to one, with over 150 members at the meeting. At a big meeting at the Open University, I debated with Steven Rose. The resolution I supported was passed, and Steven's was defeated. We wanted to ensure that delegates opposed the boycotts and passed a mandating resolution, (though Steven went on to ignore that).
At Birmingham, Sue Blackwell's new call, with new "evidence" for a boycott of Haifa was defeated. At branches up and down the country, on all the big campuses, there were debates and meetings. Not a single branch supported the specific boycotts of Haifa and Bar-Ilan; one or two thought boycotting was not wrong in principle; one or two thought there should be action taken against Ariel College, which is actually in the occupied West Bank. But there was no majority in any branch for the sort of boycott proposed by Natfhe or for the boycotts of Bar-Ilan and Haifa.
Contrast Natfhe. The Natfhe boycott simply has not been discussed by the members. At Natfhe's conference, the strongly pro-Palestine general secretary opposed the boycott resolution for precisely this reason. He asked for a show of hands of those branches that had discussed the matter. Two hands went up.
We know that there was some discussion at Middlesex, and the vote went (as far as I'm concerned) the wrong way: 10 to six. That's 16 members of Natfhe. There was a pro-boycott vote at one of the three campuses at UEL, where about a dozen members voted. So the UEL delegate might have a defence. There may have been a vote at Brighton, but lots of the staff there know nothing about it, and are bemused at the shooting to national fame of their Natfhe rep, Tom Hickey, And that's it: perhaps 30 members.
So this is what happened. A bunch of the far left, organised by the SWP but with no mandate on the matter from their members, pushed though a gesture resolution. The SWP is in a strong position in Natfhe because of its arcane regional structure and because ideological zealotry counts for a lot when the time of academics and teachers is so squeezed. The story will be familiar to anyone who has participated on the left in organisations where small numbers of committed activists can dominate and can get way out of line from the views of the membership.
That's why participative local branch meetings are so important.
But on the boycott issue, these simply didn't take place. The unrepresentative delegates have damaged Natfhe, not just because of the politics of the boycott but by the way in which they pushed it through, without discussion by the members. Who thinks this? Among others, the general secretary of Natfhe himself.
Remember this: thousands of AUT members had the chance to take a vote last year; thousands took that opportunity. This year, apart from the delegates, perhaps fewer than 50 Natfhe members voted on the boycott.
If I'm wrong, Natfhe delegates (Coventrian, AndreBreton, anyone else) please let me know; if you're a member of Natfhe, let me know whether you were consulted. Delegates, let me know, in the comments, how you consulted with members before voting to commit them to this policy. Let's see if we can get past the 150 mark. Why150? Well, let's see whether Natfhe managed to consult more members than turned up to a single branch the AUT - at University College London. So far, we are certain about 16, , at Middlesex.
So just give me the name of the branch, the numbers voting and when the vote took place. You can do this anonymously. Perhaps I know nothing and I'll be deluged with outraged citations of big meetings, membership votes and so on. But perhaps you'll patiently explain to me that "that's not how democracy works in Natfhe". Perhaps there's some strange, metaphysical form of representation that can dispense with actually asking the members of your union what they think. OK, explain away.
But if I'm right, then it's clear what we have here: contempt for the members and a travesty of democracy.
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