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A race to the bottom

Happy new year to one and all, although I suspect for many it will be a new year of trepidation rather than hope and excitement.

It seems that every way we turn there is a strike or a threat of a strike in this country, reminiscent, according to the media, of the 1970s.  It also seems that every public service we think about (I mean this in the wider context so would include Royal Mail for example,) is failing in one way or another.  The one thing that strikes me though, pardon the pun, is that none of this has suddenly happened.  And yet, if you were to believe media reporting, this is something that is caused by those pesky unions and intransigent workers or is it the other way round?  Anyway, the constant rhetoric of there is ‘no money’, if said often enough by politicians and echoed by media pundits becomes the lingua franca.  Watch the news and you will see those ordinary members of the public saying the same thing.  They may prefix this with ‘I understand why they are striking’ and then add…’but there is no money’.  

When I listen to the radio or watch the news on television (a bit outdated I know), I am incensed by questions aimed at representatives of the railway unions or the nurses’ union, amongst others,  along the lines of ‘what have you got to say to those businesses that are losing money as a result of your strikes or what would you like to say to patients that have yet again had their operations cancelled’? This is usually coupled with an interview of a suffering business owner or potential patient.  I know what I would like to say to the ignorant idiot that asked the question and I’m sure most of you, especially those that know me, know what that is.  Ignorant, because they have ignored the core and complex issues, wittingly or unwittingly, and an idiot because you already know the answer to the question but also know the power of the media. Unbiased, my …. 

When we look at all the different services, we see that there is one thing in common, a continuous, often political ideologically uncompromising drive to reduce real time funding for public services.  As much as politicians will argue about the amount of money ploughed into the services, they know that the funding has been woefully inadequate over the years. I don’t blame the current government for this, it is a succession of governments and I’m afraid Labour laying the blame at the Tory governments’ door just won’t wash.  Social care, for example, has been constantly ignored or prevaricated over, long before the current Tories came to power, and the inability of social care to respond to current needs has a significant knock-on effect to health care.  I do however think the present government is intransigent in failing to address the issues that have caused the strikes.  Let us be clear though, this is not just about pay as many in government and the media would have you believe.  I’m sure, if it was, many would, as one rather despicable individual interviewed on the radio stated, ‘suck it up and get on with it’. I have to add, I nearly crashed the car when I heard that, and the air turned blue.  Another ignoramus I’m afraid.

Speak to most workers and they will tell you it is more about conditions rather than pay per se. Unfortunately, those increasingly unbearable and unworkable conditions have been caused by a lack of funding, budget restraints and pay restraints. We now have a situation where people don’t want to work in such conditions and are voting with their feet, exacerbating the conditions.  People don’t want to join those services because of poor pay coupled with unworkable conditions. The government’s answer, well to the nurses anyway, is that they are abiding by the independent pay review body. That’s like putting two fingers up to the nurses, the health service and the public.  When I was in policing it had an independent pay review body, the government didn’t always abide by it, notably, they sometimes opted to award less than was recommended. The word recommendation only seems to work in favour of government. Now look at the police service, underfunded, in chaos and failing to meet the increasing demands. Some of those demands caused by an underfunded social and health care service, particularly mental health care.

Over the years it has become clear that successive governments’ policies of waste, wasted opportunity, poor decision making, vote chasing, and corruption have led us to where we are now. The difference between first and third world country governments seems to only be a matter of degree of ineptitude.  It has been a race to the bottom, a race to provide cheap, inadequate services to those that can’t afford any better and a race to suck everyone other than the rich into the abyss. 

A government minister was quoted as saying that by paying wage increases it would cost the average household a thousand pound a year. I’d pay an extra thousand pound, in fact I’d pay two if it would allow me to see my doctor in a timely manner, if it gave me confidence that the ambulance would turn up promptly when needed, if it meant a trip to A&E wouldn’t involve a whole day’s wait or being turned away or if I could get to see a dentist rather than having to attempt DIY dentistry in desperation.  I’d like to think the police would turn up promptly when needed and that my post and parcels would be delivered on time by someone that had the time to say hello rather than rushing off because they are on an unforgiving clock (particularly pertinent for elderly and vulnerable people).

And I’m not poor but like so many people I look at the new year with trepidation.  I don’t blame the strikers; they just want to improve their conditions and vis a vis our conditions.  Blaming them is like blaming cows for global warming, its nonsensical.

And as a footnote, I wonder why we never hear about our ex-prime minister Liz Truss and her erstwhile Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng; what a fine mess they caused. But yesterday’s news is no news and yet it is yesterday’s news that got us to where we are now.  Maybe the media could report on that, although I suspect they probably won’t.

I am not your “ally” (or am I?)

Today’s blog entry is a stream of consciousness rather than a finished entry with an introduction, middle and conclusion. It’s something that has been puzzling me for sometime, trying to work out why the term “ally” discomforts me and yet, not really coming to a firm conclusion. So I thought I’d explore it through a blog entry and would welcome anyone’s input to help me clarify and refine my own thinking and either embrace or reject the term.

Anyone that knows me, knows I love reading and of course, I love words. I love to play with them, say them, write them, discover new ones and trace the etymology as far as I can. Equally, I do not hide the fact that I try to understand the world through both pacifism and feminism. This makes me rather susceptible to interrogating and challenging the things that I see around me, including the written and spoken word.

The most obvious place to start when exploring words, is a dictionary, and this blog entry does similar. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary the term “ally” has three distinct definitions:

“a country that has agreed officially to give help and support to another one, especially during a war”

“someone who helps and supports someone else”

“someone who helps and supports other people who are part of a group that is treated badly or unfairly, although they are not themselves a member of this group”

Now for obvious reasons, I find the first definition problematic, put simply for me, war is a crime. The act of waging war includes multiple violences, some individual, some institutional, some structural and all incredibly harmful decades, or even centuries later. Definitions which have roots in the military and warfare leave me cold and I hate the way in which they infiltrate civilian discourse. For example “the war on drugs”, “the war on poverty”, “officer to the meeting” and the reshaping of the term “ally” for the twenty-first century” I definitely don’t want to be the “ally” described in that definition.

Definition two is also problematic, albeit for different reasons. This definition seems far too broad, if I hold the door open for you, is that me being an ally? If I help you carry your heavy bags, can I say I’m your ally? This seems a nonsensical way to talk about everyday actions which would be better described as common civility, helping each other along the way.Should I say “thank you kind ally” every time, someone moves out of my way, or offers their seat on the bus? It seems evident that this definition does not help me explore my reservations.

The third definition appears to come closest to modern usage of the term “ally”. This term can be applied to many different groups (as can be seen from the badges below and these are just some of the many examples). “whilst I identify as cisgender, I’m a trans ally”, whilst currently heterosexual, I’m a LGBTQ+ ally”, despite being white, I’m a BLM ally” and so on. On the surface this is very positive, moving society away from the nonsense of people describing themselves as “colour-blind”, “gender-blind” or such trite phrases as “we all bleed the same”, ignoring the lack of equity in society and pretending that everyone has the same lived experience, the same opportunities, the same health, wealth and happiness. Buying into the hackneyed idea that if only you work hard enough, you will succeed, that we live in a classless society and the only thing holding anyone back is their own inertia.

However, maybe my problem isn’t with the word “ally” but the word “I”, and the fact that the two words seem inseparable, After all who decides who is an ally or who is not, is there a organisation somewhere that checks your eligibility to be an ally? I’m pretty sure there’s not which means that that “ally” is a description you apply to yourself. After all you can buy the badge, the t-shirt, the mug etc etc, capitalism is on your side, provided the tills are ringing, there’s every reason to sign up. Maybe a tiny percentage of your purchases goes to financially benefit the people you aim to support, for example the heavily criticised Skittles Pride campaign which donated only 2p to LGBTQ+ charities (and stands accused of white supremacy and racism). Of course, once you have bought the paraphernalia, there is no need to do anything else, beyond carrying/wearing/eating your “ally” goods with pride.

All of the above seems to marketise and weaponise behaviour that should be standard practice, good manners if you like, in a society. Do we need a special word for this kind of behaviour or should we strive to make sure we make space for everyone in our society? If individuals or groups gain civil rights, I don’t lose anything, I gain a growing confidence that the society in which I live is improving, that there is some movement (however small) toward equity for all. Societies should not make life more difficult for the people who live in them, regardless of religious or spiritual belief, we have one opportunity to make a good life for ourselves and others and that’s right now, so why seek to dehumanise and disadvantage other humans who are on the same journey as we are.

Ultimately, my main concern with the use of term of “ally” is that it obscures incredibly challenging social harms, with colour and symbols hiding inaction and apathy. Accept the label of “ally”, wear the badge, if you think it has meaning, but if you do nothing else, this is meaningless. if you see inequality and you do not call it out, take action to remedy the situation, the word “ally” means nothing other than an opportunity to make yourself central to the discussion, taking up, rather than making, room for those focused on making a more just society.

I still remain uncomfortable with the term “ally” and I doubt it will ever appear in my lexicon, but it’s worth remembering that an antonym of ally is enemy and nobody needs those.

ASUU vs The Federal Government

It will be 8 months in October since University Lecturers in Nigeria have embarked on a nationwide strike without adequate intervention from the government. It is quite shocking that a government will sit in power and cease to reasonably address a serious dispute such as this at such a crucial time in the country.

As we have seen over the years, strike actions in Nigerian Universities constitute an age-long problem and its recurring nature unmasks, quite simply, how the political class has refused to prioritise the knowledge-based economy.

In February 2022, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) leadership
(which is the national union body that represents Nigerian University Lecturers during disputes) issued a 4-week warning strike to the Nigerian government due to issues of funding of the public Universities. Currently, the striking University Lecturers are accusing the government of failing to revitalise the dilapidated state of Nigerian Universities, they claim that the government has refused to implement an accountability system called UTAS and that representatives of the government have continued to backtrack on their agreement to adequately fund the Universities.

The government on the other hand is claiming that they have tried their best in negotiating with the striking lecturers – but that the lecturers are simply being unnecessarily difficult. Since 2017, several committees have been established to scrutinize the demands and negotiate with ASUU, but the inability of these committees to resolve these issues has led to this 8-month-long closure of Nigerian Universities. While this strike has generated multiple reactions from different quarters, the question to be asked is – who is to be blamed? Should the striking lecturers be blamed for demanding a viable environment for the students or should we be blaming the government for the failure of efforts to resolve this national embarrassment?

Of course, we can all understand that one of the reasons why the political class is often slow to react to these strike actions is because their children and families do not attend these schools. You either find them in private Universities in Nigeria or Universities abroad – just the same way they end up traveling abroad for medical check-ups.  In fact, the problems being faced in the educational sector are quite similar to those found within the Nigerian health sector – where many doctors are already emigrating from the country to countries that appreciate the importance of medical practitioners and practice. So, what we find invariably is a situation where the children of the rich continue to enjoy uninterrupted education, while the children of the underprivileged end up spending 7 years on a full-time 4-year program, due to the failure of efforts to preserve the educational standards of Nigerian institutions.

In times like these, I remember the popular saying that when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. The elephants in this context are both the federal government and the striking lecturers, while those suffering the consequences of the power contest are the students. The striking lecturers have not been paid their salaries for more than 5 months, and they are refusing to back down. On the other hand, the government seems to be suggesting that when they are “tired”, they will call off the strike. I am not sure that strike actions of the UK UCU will last this long before some sort of agreement would have been arranged. Again, my heart goes out to the Nigerian students during these hard times – because it is just unimaginable what they will be going through during these moments of idleness. And we must never forget that if care is not taken, the idle hand will eventually become the devil’s workshop!

Having said this, Nigerian Universities must learn from this event and adopt approaches through which they can generate their income. I am not inferring that they do not, but they just need to do more. This could be through ensuring large-scale investment programs, testing local/peculiar practices at the international level, tapping into research grant schemes, remodeling the system of tuition fees, and demonstrating a stronger presence within the African markets. As a general principle, any institution that wishes to reap the dividends of the knowledge-based economy must ensure that self-generated revenues should be higher than the government’s grants – and not the other way. So, Universities in Nigeria must strive to be autonomous in their engagements and their organisational structure – while maintaining an apolitical stance at all times.

While I agree that all of these can be difficult to achieve (considering the socio-political dynamics of Nigeria), Universities must remember that the continuous dependence on the government for funds will only continue to subject them to such embarrassments rather than being seen as respected intellectuals in the society. Again, Nigerian Universities need a total disruption; there is a need for a total overhaul of the system and a complete reform of the organisational structure and policies.

World Mental Health Day 2022

Monday marked World Mental Health day, that one day of the year when corporations and establishments which act like corporations tell us how much mental health matters to them, how their worker’s wellbeing matters to them. Given many sectors are affected by industrial action, or balloting for industrial action, this seems like a contradiction. Could it be possible that these industries and government are causing mental ill health, while paying lip service as a PR tool? Could it be that capitalism and inequalities associated with it are both the cause of mental health conditions and the very thing that prevents recovery from it?

Capitalism, I argue, is the root of a lot of society’s problems. The climate crisis is largely caused by consumerism and our innate need for stuff. The cost of living crisis is more like a greed crisis, since the rich are getting richer and the corporations are making phenomenal profits while small business struggle to make ends meet and what used to be the middle class are relying on food banks, getting second jobs and wondering whether they can afford to put the heating on. No wonder swathes of us are suffering with anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. Of course, I cannot argue that capitalism is to blame for all manner of mental health conditions as that is simply not the case. There are many causes of mental health conditions which simply cannot be blamed on the environment. The mental health conditions I discuss here are the depression and anxiety that so many of us suffer as a result of environmental stressors, namely capitalist embedded society.

The mental health epidemic did not start with the current ‘crises’[1] though. Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic contributes and exacerbates already existing inequalities and the UK saw an increase in adults reporting psychological distress during the first two years of the pandemic, yet fewer were being diagnosed, perhaps due to inaccessibility of GPs during this time. Even before all these things which have exacerbated mental health conditions, prevalence of common mental disorders has been increasing since the 1990s. At the same time, we have seen in the UK, neoliberal ideology and austerity politics privatise parts of the NHS and decimate funding to services which support those with needs relating to their mental health.

I am not a psychologist but I know a problem when I see or experience one. Several months ago, I was feeling a bit low and anxious so I sought help from the local NHS talking therapies service. The service was still in restrictions and I was offered a series of six DBT-based telephone appointments. After the first appointment, I realised that this was not going to help. It was suggested to have a structure in my life. I have a job, doctoral studies, dog, home educated teenager, and I go to the gym. Scheduling and structure was already an essential part of my life. Next, I was taught coping skills. ‘Get some exercise’, ‘go for a walk’. Ditto previous session – I’m gym obsessed, with a dog I walk every day, mostly in green spaces. My coping skills were not the problem either. What I realised was that I didn’t need psychological help, I needed my environment to change. I needed my workload to be reduced, my PhD to finally end, my teenage daughter not to have any teenage problems, my dog to behave, for someone to pay my mortgage off, and a DIY fairy to fix the house I don’t have time to fix. No amount of therapy could ever change these things. I realised that it wasn’t me that was the problem – it was the world around me.

I am not alone. The Mental Health Foundation have published some disturbing statistics:

  • In the past year, 74% of people (in a YouGov survey of 4,619) have felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope.
  • Of those who reported feeling stressed in the past year, 22% cited debt as a stressor.
  • Housing worries are a key source of stress for younger people (32% of 18-24-year-olds cited it as a source of stress in the past year). This is less so for older people (22% for 45-54-year-olds and just 7% for over 55s).

The data show not only the magnitude of the problem, but they also indicate some of the prevalent stressors in these respondents’ lives. Over 1 in 5 people cited debt as a stressor, and this survey was undertaken long before the cost of greed crisis. It is deeply concerning, particularly considering the anticipated increase in interest rates and the cost of energy bills at the moment.

The survey also showed that young people are concerned about housing, and this will have a disproportionate impact on care leavers who may not have family to support them and working class young people who cannot afford housing.

The causes of both these issues are predominantly fat cat employers who can afford to pay sufficient and fair wages, fat cat landlords buying up property in droves to rent them out at a huge profit, not to mention the fat cat energy suppliers making billions when half the country is now in fuel poverty. All the while, our capitalism loving government plays the game, shorting the pound to raise profits for their pals while the rest of us struggle to pay our mortgages after the Bank of England raised interest rates. No wonder we’re so stressed!

For work-related stress, anxiety and depression, the Labour Force Survey finds levels at the highest in this century, with 822,000 suffering from such mental health conditions. The Health and Safety Executive show that education and human, health and social work are the industries with the highest prevalence of stress, anxiety and depression.  It is yet another symptom of neoliberalism which applies corporate values to education and public services, where students are the cash cow, and workers are exploited; and health and social work being under funded for years. Is it any wonder then that both nurses and lecturers are balloting for industrial action right now?

Despite all this, when World Mental Health Day arrives, it becomes the perfect PR exercise to pay lip service to staff wellbeing. The rail industry are in a period of industrial action, yet I have seen posts on rail companies’ social media promoting World Mental Health Day. Does the promotion of mental health initiatives include fair pay and conditions for staff? I think not.

Something needs to give, but what?

As a union member and representative, I argue for the need for employers to pay staff appropriately for the work they do, and to treat them fairly. This would at least address work and finance related stressors. Sanah Ahsan argues for a universal basic income, for safe and affordable housing and for radical change in the structural inequalities in the UK. Perhaps we could start with addressing structural inequalities. Gender, race and class all impact on mental health, with women more likely to be diagnosed with depression, Black women at an increased risk of common mental health disorders and the poor all more likely to suffer mental health conditions yet less likely to receive adequate and culturally appropriate support. In my research with women seeking asylum, there is a high prevalence of PTSD, yet therapy is difficult to access, in part due to language difficulties but also due to cultural differences. Structural inequalities then not only contribute to harm to marginalised people’s mental health, but also form a barrier to support.

I do not have a realistic solution, but I have the feeling society needs a radical social change. We need an end to structural inequalities, and we need to ensure those most impacted by inequalities get adequate and appropriate support. When I look to see who is in charge, and who could be in charge if the tides were to turn, and I don’t see this happening anytime soon.


[1] I’m hesitant to call them crises. As Canning (2017:9) explains in relation to the refugee ‘crisis’, a crisis is unforesessable and unavoidable. The climate crisis has been foreseen for decades, and the cost of living crisis is avoidable if you compare other European countries such as France where the impact has been mitigated by the government. The mental health crisis has also been growing for a long time and the extent to which we say today could be both foreseen and avoided.

Criminology First Week Activity (2021)

Winning posters 2021, from L to R: Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3

Before embarking on a new academic year, it is always worth reflecting on previous years. In 2020, the first year we ran this activity, it was a response to the challenges raised by the Covid-19 pandemic and was designed to serve two different aims. The first of these, was of course, academic, we wanted students to engage with a activity designed to explore real social problems through visual criminology, inspiring the criminological imagination for the year ahead. Second, we were operating in an environment that nobody was prepared for: online classes, limited physical contact, mask wearing, hand sanitising, socially distanced. All of these made it very difficult for staff and students to meet and to build professional relationships. The team needed to find a way for people to work together safely, within the constraints of the Covid legislation of the time and begin to build meaningful relationships with each other.

The start of the 2021/2022 academic year had its own pandemic challenges with many people still shielding, others awaiting covid vaccinations and the sheer uncertainty of going out and meeting people under threat of a deadly disease. After taking on board student feedback, we decided to run a similar activity during the first week of the new term. As before, students were placed into small groups, advised to take the default approach of online meetings (unless all members were happy to meet physically), provided with a very short prompt and limited guidance as to how best to tackle the project. The prompts were as follows:

Year 1: Femicide

Year 2: Mandatory covid vaccinations

Year 3: Revoking British citizenship

Many of the students had never physically met, yet managed to come together in the midst of a pandemic, negotiate a strategy, carry out the work and produce well designed and thoughtful, criminological posters.

As can be seen from the collage below, everyone involved embraced the challenge and created some remarkable posters. Some of these have been shared previously across social media but this is the first time they have all appeared together in one place.

I am sure everyone will agree our students demonstrated knowledge, understanding, resilience and stamina. We will be running a similar activity for the first week of the academic year 2022-2022, with different prompts to provoke thought and encourage dialogue and team work. We’ll also take on board student and staff feedback from the previous two activities. Plato once wrote that ‘our need will be the real creator’, put more colloquially, necessity is the mother of all invention, and that is certainly true of our first week activity.

Who knows what exciting ideas and posters will be demonstrated this time, but one thing is for sure Criminology students have the opportunity to flex their activism, prepare to campaign for social justice, in the process becoming real #Changemakers.

UCU Strike 21-25 March 2022

More information around the University and College University [UCU] and the Four Fights Dispute can be found here.

Information about the Northampton branch of UCU can be found here and here.

You can also find out why striking is a criminological issue here: https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/2021/12/10/striking-is-a-criminological-matter/ and here: https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/2022/02/18/united-nations-un-world-day-of-social-justice/

If you want to know why the Criminology Team is prepared to stand outside in the cold and rain please read here: https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/2022/03/02/higher-education-the-strikes-and-me/ and here: https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/2022/03/09/higher-education-students-the-strikes-and-me/

UCU Strike 28 February-2 March 2022

More information around the University and College University [UCU] and the Four Fights Dispute can be found here.

Information about the Northampton branch of UCU can be found here and here.

You can also find out why striking is a criminological issue here: https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/2021/12/10/striking-is-a-criminological-matter/ and here: https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/2022/02/18/united-nations-un-world-day-of-social-justice/

UCU Strike 21-22 January 2022

More information around the University and College University [UCU] and the Four Fights Dispute can be found here.

Information about the Northampton branch of UCU can be found here and here.

You can also find out why striking is a criminological issue here: https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/2021/12/10/striking-is-a-criminological-matter/ and here: https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/2022/02/18/united-nations-un-world-day-of-social-justice/

Striking is a criminological matter

You may have noticed that the University and College Union [UCU] recently voted for industrial action. A strike was called from 1-3 December, to be followed by Action Short of a Strike [ASOS], in essence a call for university workers to down tools for 3 days, followed by a strict working to contract. For many outside of academia, it is surprising to find how many hours academics actually work. People often assume that the only work undertaken by academics is in the classroom and that they spend great chunks of the year, when students are on breaks, doing very little. This is far from the lived experience, academics undertake a wide range of activities, including reading, writing, researching, preparing for classes, supervising dissertation students, attending meetings, answering emails (to name but a few) and of course, teaching.

UCU’s industrial action is focused on the “Four Fights“: Pay, Workload, Equality and Casualisation and this campaign holds a special place in many academic hearts. The campaign is not just about improving conditions for academics but also for students and perhaps more importantly, those who follow us all in the future. What kind of academia will we leave in our wake? Will we have done our best to ensure that academia is a safe and welcoming space for all who want to occupy it?

In Criminology we spend a great deal of time imagining what a society based on fairness, equity and social justice might look like. We read, we study, we research, we think, and we write about inequality, racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia, Islamophobia and all of the other blights evident in our society. We know that these cause harm to individuals, families, communities and our society, impacting on every aspect of living and well-being.  We consider the roles of individuals, institutions and government in perpetuating inequality and disadvantage. As a theoretical discipline, this runs the risk of viewing the world in abstract terms, distancing ourselves from what is going on around us. Thus it is really important to bring our theoretical perspectives to bear on real world problems. After all there would be little point in studying criminology, if it is only to see what has happened in the past.

Criminology is a critique, a question not only of what is but might be, what could be, what ought to be. Individuals’ behaviours, motivations and reactions and institutional and societal responses and actions, combine to provide a holistic overview of crime from all perspectives. It involves passion and an intense desire to make the world a little better. Therefore it follows that striking must be a criminological matter. It would be crass hypocrisy to teach social justice, whilst not also striving to achieve such in our professional and personal lives. History tells us that when people stand up for themselves and others, their rights and their future, things can change, things can improve. It might be annoying or inconvenient to be impacted by industrial action, it certainly is chilly on the picket line in December, but in the grand scheme of things, this is a short period of time and holds the promise of better times to come.

UCU Strike 1-3 December 2021

More information around the University and College University [UCU] and the Four Fights Dispute can be found here.

Information about the Northampton branch of UCU can be found here and here.

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