Building a new left in PCS

On 12 December the ballot will close for the general secretary election of the civil servants’ union, PCS. For almost two decades the union had been led by the left. Crucial to maintaining that position has been the role of the ‘broad left’ organisation, Left Unity. In this election, however, there are two candidates who are members of Left Unity: the current general secretary, Mark Serwotka, and Socialist Party member, Marion Lloyd.

This reflects a move to the right at the top of PCS and a resulting change in the character of Left Unity. Prior to the election of Mark Serwotka in 2000, PCS and its forerunner CPSA were led by an extreme right-wing leadership with links to the security services. Enormous positive changes took place after the left took control, with the Socialist Party playing a key role. A democratic lay-led culture and a leadership determined to fight in its members’ interests became the hallmarks of PCS.

The PCS was central to the fight for coordinated public-sector strike action against the Con-Dem coalition government’s attacks on pensions after it took office in 2010. When that strike action was betrayed by the right-wing leaders of the TUC, PCS Left Unity led the attempts to prevent the retreat. However, the character of any organisation, or its leadership, is not fixed for all time but changes under the impact of events.

The fighting stance of the PCS during the pensions struggle could not fully inoculate the union against the consequences of the TUC’s betrayal. The Con-Dem government gained confidence to accelerate its attacks on public-sector workers, not least civil servants. A left leadership cannot eliminate problems in a complicated situation where attacks are raining down on members.

Nonetheless, its fundamental approach should be clear: in the face of each government attack, to campaign to convince PCS members to take effective action in defence of their pay and conditions, while preserving the strength of PCS for future battles. At the same time, continuing the battle for coordinated action with others, even if PCS is forced to fight alone as a result of the role of right-wing leaderships of other unions.

Mark Serwotka and his supporters have begun to retreat from this approach. Recently, they have been increasingly relying on the possibility of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government as a solution to civil servants’ problems. It is, of course, correct to fight for the election of such a government – hence Socialist Party members, including Marion Lloyd, putting a resolution to the PCS NEC in September demanding that the TUC use its annual conference to call a mass national demonstration to get the Tories out and for the election of a Corbyn-led government with socialist policies.

However, Mark Serwotka and his supporters on the NEC defeated the resolution. As a consequence, there was no proposal put to the TUC for any trade union action to campaign for Corbyn’s election. There is a world of difference between the workers’ movement fighting for a government in its interests, while prosecuting the day-to-day struggles, and using hopes in a Corbyn-led government as a means to evade the concrete questions that face the movement.

The former requires left union leaders fighting for the workers’ movement to take an independent stance – including campaigning for Jeremy Corbyn to stand on a programme in the interests of the working class, and for the removal of the pro-capitalist elements in the Labour Party who would attempt to sabotage the implementation of such a programme. Unfortunately, rather than taking this approach, Serwotka is relying on his personal influence with the Labour frontbench to win civil servants’ demands.

He has stated this openly in his election manifesto, boasting that he “is trusted by both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, having worked closely with them over many years”. He added: “That’s why PCS has never had greater influence over the Labour front bench than we do now” – as if Corbyn standing for the restoration of national civil-service pay bargaining is as a result of friendship with Serwotka, rather than his anti-austerity programme. Or as if that friendship would be any help if Blairite MPs tried to block a Corbyn-led government implementing it.

This wrong approach could have negative consequences for civil servants not only prior to an election but also afterwards. If a Corbyn-led government is elected it would be a potentially significant step forward for the working class, but it is clear that the capitalist elite would do all they could to frustrate it implementing pro-working-class policies.

In such a situation, it would be vital for the workers’ movement to mobilise for its demands, refusing to accept any retreats by the government. If Serwotka continues with his current approach he would be asking civil servants to trust in his friendship with the government, rather than organising them to take action to fight for their interests.

Inevitably, the industrial and political retreats by Serwotka and his supporters have been accompanied by a move away from the lay-led democratic traditions of PCS, with increased reliance on the union machine. The pressure to move in this direction always exists in the trade union movement and is bound to be exerted most strongly in a period of retreat, when rank-and-file trade unionists – under pressure from management in the workplaces – find it harder to be active in the union and can often see less immediate reason to be so. Faced with those problems it is all too easy to slide into reliance on full-time officials to ‘run’ the union, increasingly bypassing democratic structures.

One important way of combating this tendency would have been to extend the number of elected senior union officers beyond the existing two: the general secretary and assistant general secretary. This has long been Left Unity policy, and became PCS policy in 2017. Despite this, Mark Serwotka has never made any promise to implement it, and does not mention it in his current election manifesto, showing clearly that he has no intention of carrying it out if he is re-elected.

Never mind increasing the number of elected full-time officials, he previously refused to work with the only other one. When Chris Baugh, a Socialist Party member, held the post of assistant general secretary, he was frequently bypassed in favour of unelected officials. This process culminated in Mark Serwotka campaigning against Chris’s re-election earlier this year, instead backing an unelected official, despite Chris having been democratically selected as the candidate of Left Unity! The result was that Left Unity lost the position, while Serwotka’s favoured candidate came last.

Unfortunately, his approach to the assistant general secretary election shows how Serwotka and his supporters see Left Unity’s role today. The Socialist Party played a key part in the left’s battle to win the leadership of PCS. Yet we never sought to work alone. On the contrary, we always prioritised building an open, democratic trade union left to bring together all those activists who wanted to fight for the transformation of the unions.

Even in the past, this was not the approach of Mark Serwotka. In fact, in 2000 he stood for the general secretary against the democratic decision of Left Unity. This did not prevent us and the left supporting him in the subsequent election, and defending him from the attempts of the right to launch a coup to prevent him from taking up his post after his victory.

The role of a trade union left does not cease with the election of a left leadership. A democratic, fighting left-wing organisation gives rank-and-file militants a voice, and acts as a vital counterweight to the constant pressure from the capitalist class on the trade unions to ‘moderate’ their demands. Today, however, Serwotka and his supporters see Left Unity only as a transmission belt for the policies of the leadership.

When Serwotka disagreed with Left Unity’s choice of AGS candidate, he simply ignored it, as did others. When it came to the general secretary election, Serwotka announced his candidature at the union annual delegate conference in May 2019, without any reference to Left Unity. He then appealed to Left Unity to back him, with his supporters carrying out all kinds of unconstitutional manoeuvres – including the last-minute introduction of email voting – in order to ram through support for his candidacy.

Mark Serwotka made clear in his Left Unity election address that he believes that “the industrial and political conditions have changed, and the union and Left Unity must change with them”. He went on to describe what he thought Left Unity’s role should be in the new situation, saying that, in the past, it had to “concentrate on winning elected positions for the left. Now it must do more, reach out to new layers of activists, work to build workplace strength, help win national ballots and organise solidarity for members in dispute”.

Every single union activist – whether or not they are in Left Unity – should be carrying out these tasks. They are essential parts of the basic role of a trade union! The task of a broad left is different, however. Yes, it includes winning elected positions for the left, including selecting the left’s candidates by scrutinising their policies and record. But it also includes debating and discussing the left’s approach on different issues, and holding existing left union leaders to account. This was the historic role of Left Unity, which Serwotka and his supports who dominate the Left Unity National Committee (LUNC) are now openly opposing.

Unfortunately, this is the culmination of the direction Mark Serwotka’s supporters have taken over a period of time. No wonder, as Serwotka correctly states in his Left Unity election address, that there are “many reps who want to see a fightback but currently don’t see Left Unity as a way to do that”. This was also reflected in the small turnout in the Left Unity ballot for general secretary, with 185 votes cast. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this was much smaller than the, still modest, 350 votes cast in the election to choose the Left Unity candidate for assistant general secretary.

Given that the general secretary and the majority of the LUNC went on to ignore that result, it can’t be a surprise that many left activists could not see the point of participating this time. Marion Lloyd’s candidature for general secretary is essential for PCS as a whole. It is also crucial for the rebuilding of a fighting democratic left in which PCS left activists have a real voice, including being able to select their candidates for office and hold them to account once elected.

Hannah Sell