SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 229 June 2019

PCS setback for the left

The PCS assistant general secretary election has seen John Moloney from the Independent Left elected at the expense of Chris Baugh, Socialist Party member and incumbent AGS since 2004. There will be some in the trade union movement who will no doubt rejoice at this result, hoping it signifies a turn to the right in the civil service union and the terminal decline of the Socialist Party in PCS. They are wrong on both counts. John Moloney won with 6,211 votes, 415 ahead of Chris on 5,796. The candidate supported by general secretary Mark Serwotka, senior PCS official Lynn Henderson, was a further 200 behind.

This was the culmination of a bitter struggle that opened up last year, initially in the Left Unity broad left and then the union as a whole, after Mark Serwotka announced his intention to oppose Chris in the election. This precipitated a huge polarisation in Left Unity, for many years the most successful left-wing group in any union in Britain.

The original justification for this attack on Chris and the Socialist Party was a litany of allegations about Chris’s performance as a union official. No evidence to back the rumours, distortions and downright lies has seen the light of day. Instead, as we always insisted, this onslaught was for political and industrial reasons.

For almost 20 years, Mark Serwotka has been in a working relationship with Socialist Party members in PCS after the defeat of a vicious right wing. This opened the way to PCS playing a key role on the left of the union movement. It won major concessions on pensions from Tony Blair’s New Labour government in 2005. In 2011, it was central to the building of the two-million strong 30 November (N30) pensions strike, effectively a public-sector general strike.

This role of PCS was well understood by the Tories who singled out the union for retribution. In 2015, they attempted to break PCS financially by ending ‘check-off’, the automatic deduction of union subs from wages by the employer. This effectively forced PCS to re-recruit its membership to stay afloat. Chris Baugh was PCS treasurer as part of his AGS duties throughout this period and his terms of office.

The complex and challenging industrial environment post N30 has seen PCS often forced to fight alone, as other union leaders have been unwilling to co-ordinate action in the public sector against the cuts and pay freeze. Allied to the Tory attacks on the union, this has had an effect on the leadership, including a tendency to centralise control in the union’s officialdom, increasingly at the expense of lay democracy.

We warned at the outset of Mark Serwotka’s attack that it signified a deepening of this trend and that Chris’s re-election was an essential step in pushing back against it. The election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership, while welcomed by us and many PCS members, has also given Mark Serwotka room for manoeuvre, he has felt, to dispense with the political debate and scrutiny of the Socialist Party that was a feature of his alliance with us.

However, the AGS election result does not signify a victory for Serwotka, whose role will now be under closer examination from a big layer of activists. John Moloney positioned himself as a rank-and-file lay candidate and would have been seen by many as a left standing against the officialdom and leadership. The Independent Left has also increased its numbers on the national executive committee. They will now be put to the test in front of the members.

Socialist Party members in PCS have a long record of being able to work with those we have politically clashed with, in the interests of the wider membership. Mark Serwotka shares a political history with John Moloney and we have had many disagreements with him politically and industrially – first in CPSA, then in its successor PCS.

Nonetheless, even though Mark Serwotka went against the Left Unity decision in the general secretary election in 2000, we supported his candidature after the right-wing incumbent Barry Reamsbottom failed to get the required nominations to stand again. Beyond this, we were able to work with him to defeat the right-wing ‘coup’ attempt to reverse the election, and to consolidate the victory of the left.

Mark Serwotka’s history of ignoring Left Unity discipline has been repeated in this election – after initially insisting hypocritically that Chris accept whatever result was decided by Left Unity members. Instead, he refused to back Chris and supported Lynn Henderson as, shamefully, did leading Left Unity national committee members. It is absolutely clear that they were prepared to split the Left Unity vote to ensure Chris was defeated even if that meant a major union position was lost.

This hypocrisy will not be lost on many activists, who realise that maintaining PCS as a fighting union is at stake. Many of these were fully involved in Chris’s election campaign and are determined to rebuild the left in PCS. This is vital in the face of further attacks by the Tories but also in preparation for a Corbyn-led Labour government. Serwotka’s attack on the Socialist Party is an anticipation of this and the role that even left-wing union leaders can play should such a government retreat under pressure from big business.

In the 1970s Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon were seen as militant union leaders, christened the ‘terrible twins’ by the Tory press as mass union pressure resisted Ted Heath’s Tory government. But they accepted the pay restraint of the following Labour government as it bended under financial pressure from the IMF.

In her post-election statement, Lynn Henderson claimed that the "majority of voters also endorsed enhancing PCS engagement with Jeremy Corbyn and the current Labour leadership". This refers to her and John Maloney’s political alignment, and raises the possibility that Mark Serwotka may feel emboldened to press ahead with affiliating PCS to the Labour Party.

The Socialist Party recognised the opportunity that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election opened up for all trade unions, affiliated and non-affiliated, to defeat the Blairite supporters of capitalism who had controlled the Labour Party for three decades, and to reverse the anti-worker measures they instituted. But this would have necessitated steps such as restoring union power in the party and implementing democratic accountability including mandatory reselection of MPs. Socialist Party members were responsible for successfully moving a resolution at the Unite union conference in 2018 committing it to this position.

However, we do not support currently non-affiliated unions affiliating to Labour in an uncritical manner. In the RMT transport workers’ union, for instance, our members supported the decision taken at its special general meeting in 2018 not to re-affiliate because the Labour Party national executive had refused to accept the union’s demands on party democracy, the role of the unions in the party, and on Labour local authorities passing on Tory cuts. The RMT recognised that Labour "has the potential to be a mass party of the working class" but, with its structures largely unreformed, felt that the union could best "support, defend and develop the socialist advances that have been made" through its own independent political activity.

Our members in PCS have acted to strengthen the position of the union on this. We also opposed Mark Serwotka’s attempt to affiliate PCS to Momentum in 2016 because it was incapable of acting as an open and inclusive rank-and-file lever on Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell. Among other issues, this was probably the trigger for Serwotka to launch his attack on us a few months later, when he first approached us to ditch Chris Baugh.

We live in volatile times. All trends in the labour and trade union movement are being put to the test by the relentless crisis of capitalism. The PCS election is part of this process. We are confident that, despite the electoral setback, the Socialist Party and the left in PCS will be strengthened for the furious battles to come.

Rob Williams

Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page