I was motivated to become politically active at 15, standing for my first elected position specifically to deal with the issue of bullying. I joined the trade-union movement for the same reason: to combat bullying and harassment in the workplace. These aims are the cornerstones of trade unionism. They have been hard-fought for, and must continue to be so.
This year’s University and College Union (UCU) conference, like last year’s, featured an Israel-boycott motion. The wording didn’t state so explicitly, but this was merely political wordplay on the part of the pro-boycotters. Any motion calling for discriminatory actions based on nationality alone should be branded exactly what it is: at best discriminatory, at worst racist. Any definition to the contrary is inaccurate and an insult to the intelligence of the mainstream membership of the union and the wider academic community.
The idea that a lecturer, student or institution be assessed according to nationality, not academic merit is one that should frighten all of us who value a democratic, open society. We have dedicated many years and considerable efforts to fighting for equality and anti-discrimination legislation. This is a backwards step that we cannot tolerate.
Israel boycotts have featured in each of the last four annual conferences of the UCU, and its predecessors, the AUT and NATFHE. This is, to my mind, due to a misinterpretation or, more worryingly, manipulation of a fundamental tenet of trade unionism: international solidarity.
A boycott of Israel will not bring peace to Israel or the Palestinians. It will further drive a wedge between two peoples. As Bill Rammell said to the UCU congress, “Boycotting academics because of their nationality I find deeply disturbing. And there is no evidence that such a strategy would further the cause of peace in the Middle East”.
Dialogue is the only way to bring about positive change. Israeli and Palestinian academics have long blazed a trail of cooperation and between the two peoples. This makes the UCU’s renewed calls to boycott all the more unsavoury. A boycott ignores the complexities of the Middle East. Neither side has a monopoly on suffering or blame for the conflict. We rightly take pride in the fact that our universities are the place for open dialogue, freedom of speech and liberal thought. We have an obligation to ensure that these basic yet essential rights remain.
The pro-boycott fringe of the UCU knows it cannot win. Its union’s own legal opinion says so. An independent legal opinion provided by the Stop the Boycott campaign says so. The Socialist Workers Party, vocal supporters of last year’s motion, themselves acknowledged that, in a full ballot of UCU members, “the boycott would almost certainly be heavily defeated”. Yet, here we are again.
A stark and honest appraisal of the state of the UCU reveals a worrying reality: this fledgling union has been hijacked by an unrepresentative minority of far-left activists. In constantly pursuing policies it knows to be discriminatory, and thus illegal under the Race Relations Act, it is wasting the time and money of members, and sullying the reputation of the union.
Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, can neither allow these actions to continue within her union, nor put them down to two warring factions. She must step up to the plate and put an end to these overtly discriminatory actions. With academic freedom comes responsibility. Trade unions exist for a simple reason: to protect their members through ensuring fairness and freedom from harassment in the workplace. How ironic that unionists are proposing legislation that will produce the very opposite of this.
Hypothetically speaking, if Israeli UCU members were to find their jobs at risk, where would they go for assistance? Who would fight their corner? When your union is the very body causing your grievance, your options would be very limited indeed. Can a union expect to be taken seriously when it is sanctioning discrimination and harassment of its own members, based on their passport or affiliations? Can such a union expect to survive?
Ferocious and free debate is of course a fundamental part of any civilised society, but we cannot, and must not allow such principles to threaten any member of that society, especially on grounds of nationality. The UCU’s Israel boycott motion represents the antithesis of trade unionism.
Rather than wasting the time and money of its members to satiate the extreme views of a minority fringe, the union should busy itself with the tasks it and all other unions were set up to undertake: supporting its membership and their needs.
The writer is chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, joint head of the Stop the Boycott campaign, and former Labour MP for Rochdale