SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 141 - September 2010

The PCS debate on political representation

This autumn members of the PCS civil servants union will discuss how the union’s political campaigning can be developed, against the backdrop of the most vicious attack on public spending in generations. PCS vice-president JOHN MCINALLY, writing in a personal capacity, looks at the issues involved.

THE PUBLIC AND Commercial Services Union (PCS) is about to conduct a further round of consultation with branches and members on the question of expanding its political campaigning on the basis of ‘standing or supporting’ trade union candidates in elections. This is a significant development for PCS which, under the leadership of the left-led Democracy Alliance national executive committee (NEC), in which the Socialist Party has played a vital role, has been transformed over the past decade into a campaigning, democratic union, fighting to defend its members’ jobs, conditions and services in the face of relentless government attacks.

The right-wing Moderates group, who previously ran PCS and its predecessor the Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA), openly collaborated with Tory and Labour governments when they attacked public sector jobs and services. They scorned the idea that ‘political’ campaigning could be anything more than simply making appeals to those in power. The government was only carrying out the policies on which they had been elected, the Moderates argued, and civil service workers, who should be ‘politically neutral’, had no alternative but to comply.

Historically governments have attempted to neutralise civil service unions’ ability to campaign, both politically and industrially. The idea of ‘politically neutrality’ has been used by successive governments to apply restrictions on the political activities of civil service workers, using as justification the unique situation that the government itself is the employer. Civil servants are banned from standing in elections, for example, unless they resign from their job, with no guarantee they would be re-employed if their candidature were unsuccessful. These thoroughly anti-democratic restrictions were specifically designed to remove civil service workers from any political activity, something which in itself is a highly political act.

The Civil Servants Clerical Association, the forerunner of the CPSA, affiliated to the Labour Party in 1920, after a ballot produced a large majority in favour. Significantly, following the defeat of the 1926 general strike, the Trades Disputes and Trade Unions Act (1927) was passed, barring civil servants from affiliating to ‘outside’ organisations and forcing civil service unions to leave the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the Labour Party. This was an attempt to cut off civil service trade unions from the rest of the movement, restrict their campaigning options, and fetter the pursuance of their interests through the political arena. The Act was repealed by the post-war Labour government (the CPSA re-affiliated to the TUC in 1946) but the pressure for ‘political neutrality’ continued, particularly during the Cold War anti-communist witch hunts of the late 1940s and 1950s.

The overwhelming mass of civil servants are low paid workers, administering government legislation in a variety of services like benefits, taxation and passports, in a professional, impartial manner. The idea that because they do this type of work they should be denied the same rights as other citizens is an outrage that has been challenged by civil service trade unionists over the years. But the state – and the unions’ right-wing – have traditionally attempted to conflate professional impartiality, seen as vital by civil servants, with being ‘political neutral’, in reality non-political, in an attempt to push through attacks against a supine workforce. Of course no civil servant should ever be anything other than impartial in their job but it is completely wrong they should not be allowed to defend their job – and the service they provide – by engaging in the full range of campaign possibilities, including standing in elections.

From Labour to ‘New Labour’

THE DEBATE ON effective political representation has developed in recent years, in the PCS and other unions, as a result of the Labour Party’s abandonment of the working class. ‘New Labour’, under the leadership of Blair and Brown, espoused an ideology based on the supremacy of the market, to which they claimed there was no alternative. The cuts now being proposed by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition are truly shocking but it was New Labour that set the conditions for them through its pro-market programme that included relentless attacks on the public sector, and its marketisation agenda which developed the framework within which the coalition’s policies could be implemented.

Labour’s policies in government provoked serious questions about the issue of effective political representation for working people. A debate started in the movement that challenged the idea there was no alternative to supporting the Labour Party, the start and end point for those who defended the trade union link with Labour and which encouraged arrogant New Labour ‘theorists’ in their view that politically, working people had nowhere else to go. When Thatcher was once asked what her greatest achievement was she replied ‘New Labour’ and she wasn’t exaggerating. New Labour represented a significant victory for big business and the British ruling class.

The Labour Party was a mass organisation with a working class base that for a period provided a vehicle through which real gains could be achieved, the most notable being the welfare state and national health service. While industrial struggle and other forms of campaigning could deliver concessions the very existence of the Labour Party acted, if not as a guarantor of reforms – never entirely secured under capitalism – at least as a partial check on big business and the capacity of the ruling class to exploit workers. The more astute representatives of capitalism understood, or more precisely were made to understand by industrial struggle and political campaigning, that a failure to concede limited reforms could, under certain conditions, endanger the very existence of the profit system itself.

The Labour Party was a ‘capitalist workers party’, based on the trade unions but with a capitalist leadership. But its core principle on public ownership, the famous clause four of the party’s constitution adopted in 1918, held out the prospect, if implemented, of the overthrow of capitalism. When Blair repealed clause four in 1995 there was genuine rejoicing in the Tory press. This was not just about a few meaningless words in a party constitution but represented the abandonment of the principle of public ownership under democratic control, through which workers could gain control of their lives and build a society in the interests of the many, not the few. For the ruling elite the removal of Labour’s socialist clause was a green light to ramp up their exploitation of working people with the understanding that there would be no effective political opposition.

Fighting the Con-Dem coalition

NEVERTHELESS, THE ELECTION of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition has meant the debate over political representation has now taken on a more complicated form. Working people are disillusioned with Labour but so fearful of coalition policies anything would seem a better alternative. Along with this have come the inevitable attempts to re-write history by suggesting the New Labour government wasn’t really that bad. This is only an adjustment on the previous tactic demonstrated at last years TUC conference when, in the public services debate, no fewer than six speakers from Labour-affiliated unions came to the rostrum to bemoan government cuts and privatisation policies, without mentioning it was the same Labour Party whose government their members’ subscriptions were sustaining. It was left to the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and PCS to point out this inconvenient fact.

When PCS president Janice Godrich and general secretary Mark Serwotka raised the vital demand of a national demonstration in October of this year to build the widest possible opposition to coalition cuts the TUC general council rejected the call. This issue is still the subject of debate within the movement but the most significant aspect of this failure to provide the type of effective leadership required is what it reveals about the general council’s strategy to fight the cuts. They intend to put all their faith in the return of a Labour government, a repetition of their line under Thatcher and Major. The TUC leadership simply don’t have the confidence to organise an effective campaign that will stop the government’s programme. In fact most of them have forgotten, if they ever knew, how to do basic campaigning work like organising demonstrations and so forth. But, as millions of workers and youth are radicalised under the assault from the Tory-Lib Dem coalition the question will be posed in an increasingly sharp fashion, what is the alternative? And, will it be provided by Labour? Clearly, while this may not be the main thing on people’s minds the question won’t go away – or be postponed until Labour is back in power.

Labour cannot be reclaimed, its democratic structures have either been atomised or broken beyond repair. The claim that workers are flocking into the Labour Party is assuming the status of an urban myth, something everybody’s heard about but nobody’s actually witnessed: anyone who does join will find an undemocratic shell of a party. This doesn’t mean everybody in Labour is a lost cause, we already see examples of Labour members joining anti-cuts organisations. But the real test will be if they are serious about fighting the cuts and, in particular, whether Labour councillors will follow the example of Liverpool city council in the 1980s who defied Thatcher or the Labour councils who are already preparing to carry out the coalition cuts.

Political fund established

IT IS AGAINST this complicated backdrop that the debate on political campaigning in PCS that began under the Labour government is being conducted. Under the leadership of the left, PCS has shown that a willingness to campaign and take industrial action can win concessions in the face of government attacks. It was a priority for the left when it was elected to the national leadership of the union to establish a political fund which would free the union from the legal restrictions that prevented it from campaigning on issues that are perceived to be political, for example, against government policy or campaigning against the far right.

The national executive explained that this did not mean using members’ subscriptions to affiliate to a political party and certainly not the Labour Party, whose government was constantly attacking them. But a political fund allowed the union to campaign in members’ interests without legal restrictions, to better influence the politicians who decided their terms and conditions and the future of the services they delivered. A key part of the ‘contract’ between the PCS leadership and members on the political fund is that there would be no affiliation to a political party without a full membership ballot. The principle was clear: PCS had to be an ‘independent’ union whose loyalty, first, last and always, was to members, not to any political party.

Yet this in itself reflects the effect of the fundamental and reactionary change that has taken place in the character of the Labour Party, from a party which workers, including the broad mass of civil servants, saw as ‘their’ party, to ‘New Labour’, a party antagonistic to their interests and firmly in the enemy camp. In fact it was the policy in the past of the left and Militant, the Socialist Party’s predecessor, that the CPSA should affiliate to the Labour Party, on the correct basis that that the party was a mass organisation that exerted working-class pressure on the capitalists and provided a vehicle for workers’ political activity. This policy remained in place until it became clear that the character of the party had fundamentally and irreversibly changed and was no longer capable of representing workers’ interests in the way it once had.

The ballot to set up the political fund, formally established in November 2005, was won with an 80% yes vote and was a great step forward for the union, setting the basis for parliamentary campaigning and widening and contextualising the union’s campaigns against cuts and privatisation. In 2007 PCS launched the Make Your Vote Count (MYVC) campaign, which has been enormously popular with activists and members. The idea behind MYVC was that PCS should engage with politicians in order to question, challenge and influence them to support the union’s campaigns and policies and also to advocate our alternative to the anti-public sector consensus. MYVC opened up for many members their first real engagement with the political process and gave those participating in it a sense it was possible, however marginally, to hold politicians to account.

Through MYVC members and activists have raised campaign issues with literally thousands of local and national election candidates, in the process winning support for PCS policies and challenging tabloid stereotypes of civil servants as well-paid Mandarins who all work in Whitehall – rather than being low-paid workers trying, under the most tremendous pressure, to deliver vital services into the communities in which they live and work. Hundreds of coordinators in branches and regions organised MYVC activity, including Candidates’ Question Times, with politicians invited to put their case and answer questions. MYVC also helped in the building of the anti-fascist work that could be undertaken now the union had a political fund. During the recent general election many candidates, including notably many Liberal Democrats, signed up to PCS ‘pledges’ on jobs, conditions and services. Many MPs signed early day motions on issues like defence of the Civil Service Compensation Scheme.

However, popular as MYVC has been in the union, it is important that a sense of proportion is applied. MYVC emulated methods used by the American trade union movement, where there has never been a tradition of mass independent working class political representation, in contrast to Britain. In the US most of the trade union leaders see the unions as an appendage to the Democrats, one of the two big business-controlled parties that dominate US politics, rather than independent political actors. (Some union leaders have in recent years tried to form political alliances with blatantly pro-business Republican leaders).

With British politics also now ‘Americanised’, the limitations of MYVC have very quickly become apparent. Responses from the main parties on key issues were very similar; the most obvious problem was their consensus that the public sector was ‘a problem’ that ‘needed to be reformed’ by cuts and privatisation. The main parties often refused to answer questions, merely referring union members to their manifestos. The Labour Party actually tried to organise boycotts of MYVC Question Time events. On top of this a very obvious question began to be asked. If none of these people represent our interests, if they are all committed to attacking the public sector, who do we vote for? From there it is a very small step to drawing the conclusion that if no one speaks for us we must speak for ourselves and that means, in certain circumstances, standing or supporting candidates who do. The Socialist Party would also say that a further question is that if the Labour Party has abandoned working people, then is it not necessary to help build a new workers’ party capable of representing their interests?

Making votes really count – the next steps

AT THE 2009 PCS conference Mark Serwotka moved motion A72 that sought to create a framework in which a serious debate on the issue of standing or supporting candidates in elections could take place. This motion was agreed by the Democracy Alliance NEC despite the fact there is no unanimity of perspective on the issue of standing or supporting candidates. All could agree the motion however because, whatever views on the subject people may have, there was a recognition a question did exist, a debate was taking place, and the only way it could be properly conducted was through consultation with members and activists. This open and honest approach is in sharp contrast to that in the Labour-affiliated unions whose leaderships’ response, in the main, has been to either to pretend the debate doesn’t exist or rubbish the idea there can be any alternative to Labour no matter what attacks Labour makes on their members. Despite this the issue has been raised within the affiliated unions with, for example, disaffiliation from Labour being an important part of the campaign run by Socialist Party member Roger Bannister in his candidature for general secretary of UNISON. The vote for Roger, in a ballot that took place after the general election, reflects the considerable echo this demand has amongst members in Labour-affiliated unions, and is an indicator that the lid will not be kept on the issue by their leaders.

The 2009 motion A72 encompassed the following. It noted the experience of the MYVC campaign and explained its limitations, while pledging to continue to support it. It pledged that the PCS would continue to campaign as an independent union, not affiliated to any political party, and would campaign in favour of proportional representation. The union would consult branches on the general question of "supporting trade union candidates in elections, and on the question of PCS candidates standing in elections" and report back to the 2010 annual conference; participate in discussions and initiatives within the trade union movement on this issue; and, finally, ensure that any decisions taken at the conference were subject to the normal consultation arrangements (this, for PCS members and activists, was an unambiguous reference to a membership ballot). Amongst the important principles set out in this motion was the central commitment that if the union were at any future stage to decide to take such a decisive step as standing and supporting candidates it must be agreed and democratically underwritten by members. If not, then it would be a policy built on sand.

Motion A72 was overwhelmingly passed by conference and a consultation began in early 2010. Responses came in from 135 branches (out of 800), with 64.5% supporting the proposal PCS should consider supporting or standing trade union candidates and 35.5% rejecting the proposal. In any consultation, or an election for that matter, it is always desirable to get the highest possible rate of response or turnout. This response compares very favourably to other consultations conducted by the union. It took place at the height of the campaign on the Civil Service Compensation Scheme yet the responses came from a broad range of the union’s membership, in different groups, regions and nations. The scale of the debate was considerable too – some branches debated the issue but did not formally respond – and the debate took place in other forums of the union too, including regional committees. The depth and democratic transparency of the debate on what for many members was a ‘new’ issue was impressive with some branches conducting membership surveys with solid participation rates. This was a very creditable exercise that demonstrated the NEC was correct in taking the debate forward in this manner.

The autumn consultation

IT WAS APPARENT from the consultation that there were a number of detailed questions about how all this could work in practise – something the NEC had anticipated – and that before the issue could go to for a final conference decision and membership ballot, then further consultation would be necessary, including appropriate clarification from the NEC on how it saw these detailed issues being addressed.

Consequently the NEC, acting on recommendations from the union’s newly constituted Political Campaigns Committee, moved a further motion, A40, at the 2010 PCS conference in May that acknowledged all the lessons from the consultation and set out the way forward, specifically on the detailed questions about how the proposals would work in practise. Conference agreed motion A40 on a card vote of 153,470 (64%) to 86,799 (36%). It is a credit to PCS and a testament to the way in which the union has been transformed by a campaigning, democratic left leadership – and a reflection of the attacks made on PCS members – that this issue can be debated in such a serious fashion.

A new consultation will now run from September until November and the results will be considered by the NEC which will draw up proposals for conference 2011 and, dependent upon the recommendations and the outcome there, a full membership ballot.

The consultation will reiterate the tremendous benefits to our campaign work from the political fund, that cleared the way for the MYVC initiative and the union’s parliamentary work, which has produced real results for PCS members. The consultation will also specifically address the questions for clarification and further debate which the NEC has a view on, or at least, initial comments on. These include questions about how candidates might be selected – what would be the role of local members and branches and what role would the NEC have? How would the civil service code impact on candidate selection – the issue of political restrictions. Would the PCS back candidates from existing parties like the left-wing MP John McDonnell – the chair of the union’s parliamentary group – who has given the union unstinting support in parliament? How would the union ensure that there was no splitting of votes against far-right candidates? What would constitute the electoral platform of union-supported candidates – would it be restricted to industrial issues or take in wider concerns like equality and international issues?

The question will be posed by some in the union, why press ahead with this initiative now? Surely, the argument will go, the fact we are under the most serious assault in living memory means we should leave this alone in order to concentrate on our immediate problems? Others will say we should forget about it altogether, as it was never a good idea anyway. Of course there must be a firm focus on fighting the coalition’s cuts agenda and that is the clear message from the NEC. But this debate has started in PCS and civil servants are probably more prepared than any other group of workers for the battle ahead precisely because they have been under constant assault for years by Labour. The question the majority of PCS activists and many members pose very sharply is, Labour no more represents our interests than the coalition and while we want to get rid of the current government we don’t want to replace it with another who will also represent the banks and big business to the detriment of our jobs, services and conditions.

Based on this, the initiative must continue for two very simple reasons. Firstly, developing our campaign work in this way will be a major step forward in effectively defending jobs, services and conditions. Secondly, and absolutely critically, it gives a voice to those the current political establishment despises and marginalises, like PCS members, who believe these cuts and privatisation are not inevitable and there is an alternative.


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