UCU Elections Candidate Survey: E-ballots and Voting Transparency

Michael Abberton
7 min readFeb 5, 2023
UCU Election papers 2023

There has been a lot of concern recently within the Higher Education element of UCU about how our democratic and member consultation processes work. Questions have been raised about how the current campaign is being run — from the way the timetable of the campaign was set, to the consultation via branch and subsequent branch delegate meetings (BDM) and the way the albeit advisory results of the BDM were then considered by the Higher Education Committee (HEC).

Working in HE as I do and coming to vote with this background, the upcoming National Executive Committee and associated elections become all the more important, to ensure as many members taker part as possible, and that the democratic processes of the union are protected and strengthened. Branches and their members should not be put in the position of having to campaign and take industrial action based on a strategy decided upon and imposed seemingly from above without consultation or any form of ballot.

Similarly, it is important that our comrades in the Further, Adult and Prison Education sectors of the union also take part in the elections where they have a vote, whether they are currently taking part in industrial action or not.

The purpose of this post is not to put people off from voting — far from it. I hope to demonstrate that it is all the more important for members to vote, so that the those elected can be said to truly represent the majority of the union, with a commitment to support, protect, fully embrace and develop the democratic principles upon which the union is established.

The world of work, and so that of industrial relations and trade union business has changed. Across all sectors, hybrid working is becoming the norm and the days of mass workplace organising may be limited. We see more people being able to attend online meetings than the branch meetings of the past, these also being more accessible to members who are shielding or have access or mobility requirements. Participation via email, social media or messaging apps gives members a wealth of information at their fingertips. In a world where online debate and electronic polls are ubiquitous, then there seems to be little excuse for the union not to embrace these changes and use them to ensure that there is no democratic deficit. Our forebears could easily call union meetings off the shop floor — where every worker could vote by simply raising their hand, and all had a right to speak and be heard. When a good proportion of our workforce is elsewhere — where the shop floor and the office is now off-site or at home, wouldn’t an e-ballot and online debate be the contemporary equivalent?

This does not mean that all business should only be conducted after some form of mass plebiscite — this would stall business-as-usual at branch and national level — after all these are the precise reasons why we operate as a representative democracy. But when it comes to fundamental strategic decisions with such far-reaching ramifications — then shouldn’t the membership at least have the right to be asked? When the NEC moves to enact what many would see to be extreme action, shouldn’t the membership be consulted, instead of relying on members’ loyalty — or worse — taking it for granted?

Similarly, in a representative democracy, shouldn’t elected representatives be answerable to the membership for how they vote? Voting in the HEC and Further Education Committee should be public and noted in minutes, and those candidates should be open to challenge if it is seen that they are voting counter to the democratic will of the members they represent. To this end I circulated the questions below to as many of the candidates as I could:

1. Will you commit to directly consulting UCU members, using e-ballots, on all key questions — including the timing and duration — of industrial action?

2. Will you commit to greater NEC transparency, by advocating for a published record of how each member votes on NEC motions?

Replies — 27

Q1 — yes 15, no — 10

Q2 — yes 26, no 0, no answer 1

Of the 11 negative responses to question 1, six were UCU Left candidates, four from UCU Commons, and one with no declared faction affiliation. In the interest of balance, of the 20 Yes responses, two were UCU Left, nine were UCU Commons, the others with no declared affiliation. (For an analysis of the various factions, see here.)

The general reasoning given for not supporting e-ballots was that using them would go against the principles of representative democracy, and that decisions are best made after debate in an open forum, such as that provided by attendance at a union meeting. This was the view of Mark Abel (UCU Left, candidate for South HE):

“Those who don’t participate in the democratic process cannot expect to have the same input into decisions as those who do. Having won an industrial action ballot, I am not in favour of giving all those who did not vote or who voted against action a second chance at making sure action doesn’t happen or is minimised.”

This would appear to suggest that the majority of members who do not attend meetings — through lack of interest, unrelenting schedules, an unwelcoming branch culture, or difficulties in access — should be disenfranchised. No vote is an absolute, surely — don’t members have the right to change their minds should their circumstances change?

Another popular opinion among the no group was that the ballot format itself could be manipulated to create a desired result. Alan Barker (UCU Left, candidate for Midlands HE):

“I am concerned about the way your specific questions are phrased …e-ballots in that they can be used to manipulate decisions by simply not properly informing members of the issues. They are also secret. I would rather these debates occurred in an open forum.”

There are many ways that e-ballots can be conducted; anonymity might have to be preserved for some or be public for others. However, whereas an elected representative or officer should be answerable for how they vote, an ordinary member should not always expect to be subjected to the same scrutiny. On question 2, the result was practically unanimous. Some candidates did not know that this wasn’t currently the case, others were aware of previous measures taken to achieve this level of transparency but were unsure as to how or why it hadn’t yet been put in place. This is where transparency should be marked, and elected officers should be happy to share their voting history and be challenged on it.

It has to be said, in doing this simple survey I encountered a few unexpected and somewhat surprising responses from candidates who complained about being contacted at all, to those who refused to participate unless they were given editorial control over what I was going to publish. I am not going to name any of those candidates, nor have I used any material from those who made those demands, but I would ask voters to consider very carefully before marking any preference on the ballot papers. If someone standing for union office is not answerable and uncooperative when approached by potential voters, their motives and suitability for office should perhaps also be questioned.

The full list of responses appears below. The candidates are listed alphabetically by first name, for ease of reference.

If any of the candidates missed the opportunity to be included would like to add their opinion, or feel that they have been misrepresented, they are welcome to reply in comments.

UPDATE — 6 February

David Harvie and Matilda Fitzmaurice got in touch as they believed that their opinions were not properly represented. Therefore, I have published their full answers to question 1 below the table.

Update — 10 February

Michael McKrell got in touch to be added to the list — yes to both questions.

David Harvie:

“1. I think UCU’s democratic deficit is an enormous problem. Around half of our members vote in ballots for industrial action but not for committees/officers who make decisions on strategy (58% turnout in UCU Rising ballot; similar turnout in recent FE ballots, though only at fraction of colleges; only 8.5% and 5.3% respectively voted in 2022 NEC/officer elections). So increasing participation and engagement in these decisions is crucial. I am not convinced that e-ballots are always the best way of consulting members and ‘consulting’ is itself a very problematic term. (I have participated in consultations by employers countless times, only to see my views of those of colleagues completely ignored.) But certainly members must have a far greater say in decisions concerning the timing and duration of industrial and on what specific form this action should take.”

Matilda Fitzmaurice:

  1. Will you commit to directly consulting UCU members, using e-ballots, on all key questions — including the timing and duration — of industrial action?

“UCU has a serious democratic deficit. The composition of its elected committees by no means reflect the diversity of our union membership, which to me suggests that direct consultation will have to become commonplace. For example, I am a woman ECR on a precarious contract, but that does not make me able to represent migrant members, those in PS roles, or those working in post-92 institutions, despite my best efforts to educate myself about these members’ experiences. This means it’s only right that we go directly to members on key questions with a diversity of views, and a lot of this discussion already happens online (though we should be aware that not everyone wants or is able to be in these online spaces). Therefore, my sense is that e-ballots will be an important part of this, but I am hesitant to commit too quickly to statements that need more research and evidence. For example, how much would an e-ballot system cost the union? How would we make sure the right questions were being asked? What would constitute an acceptable turnout for an e-ballot, and for how long would these ballots be left open? Who would decide the answers to these questions? I’m sure you understand why I’d want these questions answered before making any commitment to this.”

--

--

Michael Abberton

Tomahawk thrower, writer, trade unionist, Japanese speaker and all around good guy.