|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 228 May 2019
PCS: critical election for the left
The election of the PCS civil service union’s assistant general secretary (AGS) and national executive committee (NEC) is underway. As with other elections at this time – in the RMT transport workers and Unison public services unions – this is a vital moment for the trade union left, with the tumultuous events around Brexit and the possibility of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government coming to office.
Socialist Party member Chris Baugh is standing for PCS AGS, again as the Left Unity candidate after a democratic election process. He has been the elected AGS since 2004. Chris’s initial victory, alongside Janice Godrich becoming union president and, later, the left winning a majority on the NEC, helped consolidate the dominant position of the left over a vicious right-wing leadership.
In 2000, Mark Serwotka had won the general secretary election but, two years later, the right wing attempted to overturn the result. This was defeated by a campaign of the PCS rank and file. Socialist Party members at all levels of the union played a key role in Left Unity in this fight and used this breakthrough to transform PCS into a fighting union, both industrially and politically.
However, in an unprecedented move early last year, Mark Serwotka announced to Left Unity members on the NEC that he was going to oppose Chris Baugh and support an alternative candidate for AGS in the Left Unity selection process. This effectively represented a split in the main left organisation that had formed the nucleus of the elected lay and officer leadership of PCS.
Mark Serwotka and his supporters, now grouped in Left Unity around Socialist View, attempted to justify their decision by claiming personal differences with Chris. Despite committing to abide by the Left Unity vote, Mark is now supporting Lynn Henderson, an unelected senior PCS full-time officer, and non-Left Unity member. Far deeper reasons lie behind their stand, rooted in the complex political and industrial terrain that faces PCS and the labour and trade union movement.
PCS was to the fore in fighting brutal job cuts and pension attacks under New Labour. It was also central in building the two-million-strong strike on 30 November 2011 against Tory attacks on public-sector pensions. This mass action had the potential to inflict a serious defeat on David Cameron’s Tory-led ConDem coalition at the outset of its austerity programme. However, the right-wing union leaders put a halt to the struggle after one day of strike action, and this only emboldened the Tories to unleash the full force of their cuts offensive.
PCS has been singled out by a vengeful government and has had to confront Tory attacks on union facility time and potentially devastating financial consequences of ending the ‘check-off’ automatic collection of subs by the employer – the government itself. As national treasurer of the union as part of his AGS duties, Chris Baugh has played a central role in helping to stabilise PCS’s finances in the face of this, and as a result of massive civil service job cuts of around 100,000.
This has meant that PCS has had to fight, often alone, even sometimes in retreat. In addition, the election takes place during a national strike ballot on pay as the union fights to defeat the government’s pay cap. Last year, despite a huge effort and an overwhelming 86% majority in favour of action, the 43% turnout fell short of the undemocratic 50% ballot threshold under the Tories’ Trade Union Act 2016.
Prior to this year’s ballot, Chris and his supporters have been in favour of a wide-ranging discussion, including a special delegate conference, about the way to take the pay campaign forward, to put the union in the best position to overcome the 50% threshold. It would have been an opportunity to engage reps and members, and to prepare them for the fight to win the ballot and the industrial action.
Dishonestly, but in the spirit of the culture built up by a section of the left in PCS, this open method has been used by Socialist View to justify not supporting Chris. This is in spite of the fact that he is the democratically elected Left Unity candidate, and that Socialist View insisted that Chris commit to accept the outcome of the election prior to the final result – which he did.
It is essential, in the face of the Tory onslaught, that lay-member democracy is maintained and strengthened so that the active base of the union is safeguarded. However, there has been a tendency to centralise the officialdom at the expense of lay members. Chris stands for the union’s policy of extending elections to all senior officers as an important democratic step in resisting these pressures.
Measures such as this are vital, not merely for the ongoing battle against the Tories but in preparation for a potential Corbyn government. Those around Mark Serwotka have not sufficiently prepared PCS members for the battle that has opened up in Labour, and which is an anticipation of the pressures that will be exerted on a Corbyn-led administration by the capitalist establishment and its Blairite agents.
We welcome the opportunity for the working class that Corbyn’s election as Labour leader has opened up. But the civil war being fought by the Blairites – both outside of Labour, by the likes of Chuka Umunna, and inside, led by Tom Watson – shows that the ruling class will use all the weapons at its disposal to prevent Corbyn’s more radical 2017 general election manifesto being implemented.
Current developments have a familiar echo. As in 1931 and 1981, the Labour right is using a dual wrecking tactic of a section breaking away but retaining a core element within the party. It is literally now two parties in one, straddling Labour. Unfortunately, in general, the left trade union leaders have not faced up to this reality. A determined struggle should be conducted by them to open up Labour to all socialist forces and restore the central role of the unions within its structures, to help transform it into a workers’ party.
This has not been the approach of most union leaders, who have instead looked elsewhere. We opposed Mark Serwotka when he wanted to affiliate PCS to the Momentum group because, rather than it being the fulcrum of the fight against the Labour right, it has acted to prevent socialists joining Labour. Moreover, its leader Jon Lansman has buckled to the right wing’s use of antisemitism against Corbyn and his supporters. Far from acting as a lever on the Labour leaders, it has been a crutch and a cover.
This does not bode well for the future. The union leaders will be put under enormous pressure to relent on Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell when they are pressured by the capitalists to retreat on their programme. Union leaders have often instructed members to postpone struggle so as not to ‘undermine our Labour government’. Even previously militant union leaders of the 1970s, such as Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones, acted as a brake on their members when the Labour government instituted a pay cap.
Workers’ expectations will be increased tenfold under a Corbyn-led government. It will be necessary to mobilise union members behind a fighting socialist programme to resist the establishment pressure, and to push Corbyn further to the left. It is this possibility that lies behind the capitalists’ attacks on him. In another period, they would be able to tolerate a ‘safe’ Labour leadership.
If successful, the attempt by Socialist View to replace Chris Baugh as PCS AGS by Lynn Henderson would represent a serious blow against the left-wing, lay-led culture of the union. It would also send a signal that PCS is moving away from a combative industrial and political strategy that aims to exert pressure on all politicians. However, if Chris is re-elected in the face of such an attack, it would inspire a new generation of fighters to become part of the militant left in PCS, for the battles in the here and now and those to come.