Rebuilding the left in the PCS

On December 12, the same day as the general election, the result of the general secretary election for the PCS civil service union was also announced. Mark Serwotka, in office since 2000, was re-elected with 16,420 votes. However, Socialist Party member Marion Lloyd, standing for the first time in a national officer’s election, was second, receiving an impressive 9,278 votes, 30% of the poll. Bev Laidlaw from the Independent Left came third with 5,059.

This was a crucial election in the battle to ensure PCS is maintained as a fighting, left trade union. The votes for Marion now provide a platform to build a new vibrant socialist left within the union, ready for the challenges set by a Boris Johnson majority Tory government. This will be next fought out in the national executive committee (NEC) and group executive elections that will take place this spring.

Rebuilding the left is necessary because Left Unity, the broad left that Socialist Party members have been central to in the past, is now not able to play the role of a fighting rank and file organisation. The Socialist Party and our forerunner Militant acted as the fulcrum of the Broad Left in CPSA, one of the predecessor unions of the PCS, and then in forming and developing Left Unity in the merged PCS civil service union over two decades ago.

This was a vital step in opposing and defeating the vicious right-wing leadership of the union. In 2000, Mark Serwotka stood for general secretary, independently of Left Unity. But after the right-wing incumbent Barry Reamsbottom failed to get the required nominations to stand, Socialist Party members backed Serwotka in the run off against the soft left candidate Hugh Lanning.

However, the right were determined to resist such a democratic decision, attempting a coup in 2002, when Mark Serwotka was due to take office. The right-wing was under siege from a rising left who had won the presidency with then Socialist party member Janice Godrich being elected. A massive campaign from below, linked to a legal challenge in the High Court, defeated Reamsbottom’s attempt to overturn the election. This opened the way for Left Unity to win a majority on the union’s NEC and start to transform PCS into a fighting union. In contrast, Reamsbottom became Vice President of the NATO-sponsored think tank, the Trade Union Committee for European and Transatlantic Understanding!

Under a left leadership, with Socialist Party members in key positions, PCS became the leading militant public sector union. It led opposition to the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown New Labour governments, particularly their plan to sack 100,000 civil servants and then their attack on public sector pensions.

PCS was able to play a key role in the renewed pensions struggle against David Cameron and George Osborne in 2011, which culminated in the two million strong N30 co-ordinated action in November that year, in reality a public sector general strike. That battle was stalled by the TUC and the Unison and GMB union leaders, who signed up to the government’s deal. PCS Left Unity called a conference in early 2012 to attempt to appeal to rank and file members across the unions to put the pressure on their leaders to maintain the action. It did lead to a further but smaller one-day strike in May that year but it was the last hurrah of that struggle.

As we explained at the time, the pensions battle was the major expression of the Tory-led austerity offensive and was on a far greater scale to previous disputes. The vast majority of union leaders were totally unprepared for this and the scale of generalised action needed to defeat Cameron. But the potential was there, shown on the mass rallies, demonstrations and protests in virtually every town and city.

However, the outcome was to embolden the Tories to roll out their brutal cuts. They have been devastating in the public sector and particularly the civil service. The Tories also singled out PCS for a vindictive attack, recognising its role in opposing their austerity. This consisted of seeking to hamstring the union by reducing the facility time for reps and trying to bankrupt it through ending ‘check-off’, the automatic deduction of union dues from members’ salaries. Only a mammoth campaign of effectively re-recruitment stabilised the union.

But these twin attacks – of job cuts and Tory union-busting – have had a significant effect on the union, with consequences for its leadership. There has been a marked trajectory towards relying on the officialdom as the organising core of the union, and increasing their power, at the expense of the reps and lay membership. If this continues, the real gains made by the left in terms of lay democracy and a fighting programme will be more and more under threat.

This is the reason why Mark Serwotka and his supporters launched their attack on the Socialist Party in PCS and in particular Chris Baugh, who Mark organised to unseat as assistant general secretary (AGS). Chris’s election to this position in 2004, two years after the Reamsbottom coup was defeated and a year after the left won a majority on the NEC, had been a further significant step in the transformation of PCS.

However, Mark Serwotka’s decision to break ranks within Left Unity was itself an important step in trying to re-constitute the union, politically and industrially. To him, and other leading, unelected, officials, Chris personified the pressure of lay members acting as a check on them.  

A difficult period industrially, where PCS has been isolated, allied to the victory of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, which seemed to offer another route to resist austerity attacks, has tended to blunt the militancy of the union’s leadership. It has increasingly been unwilling to play the powerful, independent industrial and political role that it was able to fulfil previously.

This was starkly shown at the pre-TUC NEC meeting in September 2019 when Socialist Party members moved a motion that if passed would have gone to the TUC conference as a PCS emergency motion. It was the week that Boris Johnson returned to parliament after his prorogation was defeated at the Supreme Court and then lost a crucial vote in the House of Commons. The motion would have seen PCS go to the TUC conference the following week to demand that workers be mobilised to fight for an immediate general election to get the Tories out, including organising a mass demonstration.

However, Mark Serwotka and his supporters opposed this, arguing that the priority was to avoid a no-deal Brexit, prettifying Corbyn’s mistaken parliamentary manoeuvres with the so-called ‘Rebel Alliance’ of pro-remain parties and opposition Tories. In 2011, PCS had acted as a focal point in levering pressure on the TUC to co-ordinate strike action on pensions. Eight years later, Mark Serwotka in the TUC conference that he chaired as president, acted to shield the TUC and the Labour leadership from such pressure, helping to reduce the workers’ movement to passive onlookers upon the Westminster games, with disastrous consequences.

Mark Serwotka claimed his challenge against Chris Baugh was due to ‘personal’ issues he had with Chris, although he later contradicted this. In reality, differences on political and industrial strategy have become clear. This was reflected in an intolerant attitude to a legitimate and necessary discussion on tactics in the pay dispute over the last two years, as PCS were denied a legal national strike by the Tories’ undemocratic voting thresholds. More and more, Mark and his supporters have regarded with suspicion any attempt to debate openly the way forward and actually used this as a pretext to break Left Unity discipline when Chris won the Left Unity nomination for the AGS position in the re-run ballot in early 2019.

Unbelievably, at the December 2018 Left Unity AGM, Mark Serwotka had demanded that Chris accept the initial result. However, when the selection process was re-run after Janice Godrich withdrew as the Left Unity candidate for AGS, he immediately declared support for the non-Left Unity member Lynn Henderson, a senior unelected official, as did many leading members of Left Unity. This helped to split the vote when the subsequent union ballot for the AGS position began in April 2019, opening the door to the Independent Left candidate to win, with Chris Baugh 415 votes behind in second place. However, the only person who has been suspended from Left Unity is Marion Lloyd for running in the general secretary election. It is clear that the people responsible for the crisis in Left Unity are Mark and his supporters.

When Mark Serwotka announced at the Left Unity rally at the 2019 PCS conference in May that he was going to stand again for general secretary, he made it clear that the support of Left Unity was welcome but that he would not be bound by the Left Unity selection process.

But his most revealing comment was that Left Unity needed a new role. Actually the one he set out is what it has increasingly become – less of an organised left pressure on the leadership but increasingly a passive mouthpiece in its service. Instead of acting as an independent left force to develop a programme and then fight for it in PCS, Serwotka envisages Left Unity acting as a mere support group, as an auxiliary to the union.

We don’t agree that this is the function of a trade union broad left. It must instead be a constant and critical force, with full democratic rights and a militant programme that can attract the best reps and members, if it to continually renew itself and the union at large. Even the best leaders are susceptible to the huge pressures from the employer and the union officialdom. Particularly in a complex political and industrial terrain, previously left leaders can lose confidence in members’ capacity to fight and move to the right.

Marion Lloyd’s election campaign has given confidence to many union activists to voice longstanding concerns about Left Unity and the direction of the union. While a whole range of left organisations have been ranged against the Socialist Party a new layer of militant activists, young and old, have grouped themselves around the new Broad Left Network, which played a key role in Marion’s campaign.

The general secretary candidate selection process revealed an atrophy in Left Unity, with the numbers voting down by almost half compared to the AGS contest. Marion’s result showed that this discontent would not automatically go to the Independent Left, whose votes have been growing in recent years and who had hoped to use their victory in the AGS election, aided by Mark Serwotka’s manoeuvres, as a platform. However, when given a more serious choice, Marion and her campaign became the main opposition to Serwotka.

An open discussion on the left is necessary now to bring together the best fighters to hammer out the fighting programme that is necessary. This will involve those who have become disillusioned with Left Unity as well as those still tied to it but who are open to that debate. And it also should include those who have been attracted to the Independent Left in the past period for the lack of a clear fighting alternative.

The general election result has banished any illusions that a Corbyn-led Labour government was going to ride to the rescue. Johnson’s first Queens Speech included new anti-union legislation, primarily threatened at the RMT and the other transport unions but which would undoubtedly affect all unions, including in the civil service. Johnson’s guru Dominic Cummins has turned the spotlight on the civil service, promising a ‘shake-up’. The battle lines are being drawn.

But the current PCS leadership will not play the role it did a decade ago. A new left is needed for that task.

Rob Williams