Edging towards affiliation
Mark Serwotka hopes to win next year’s PCS conference to join the internal Labour battle to defeat the right, writes Peter Manson
The Public and Commercial Services union took a step towards affiliation to the Labour Party at its annual conference last week. The PCS - Britain’s sixth largest trade union, which organises government employees and civil servants - agreed by 70,823 to 64,772 on a card vote to reconsider the existing PCS policy of “supporting or standing candidates in exceptional circumstances” and, centrally, undertook to review the union’s “relations with the Labour Party, including the issue of affiliation”.
The carrying of this motion, proposed by the executive committee, meant that two rival motions - one calling for immediate affiliation to Labour and the other opposing it outright - were not put to the vote. Undoubtedly the driving force behind the successful motion was the union’s general secretary, Mark Serwotka, who since the election of Jeremy Corbyn has himself joined Labour and urged union members to follow suit.
Comrade Serwotka referred in his conference speech to the PCS’s “longstanding relationships with Jeremy and shadow chancellor John McDonnell” and added: “This is a fantastic opportunity. What we have to do is not let this moment pass us by.” The PCS must now seriously ask itself “whether it is time to affiliate to Labour”. After all, the chance to get involved in the formation of Labour policy was “an opportunity we cannot turn down”. He was well aware that “some people want to move faster”, but he claimed that “you have to take the members with you”.
What he really meant was that you have to win a majority at conference, and the reality is that right now no majority for affiliation exists. In effect there is an anti-affiliation bloc consisting of both the traditional union right and, more pertinently, elements of the left: namely the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and the Socialist Workers Party. I say ‘more pertinently’ because, of course, for most of its existence the PCS (and before it the Civil and Public Services Association) was dominated by the right wing and, although the CPSA and then PCS were always affiliated to the Trades Union Congress, unlike many other unions they remained aloof from Labour. However, while there is no doubt an element of the right’s ‘anti-politics independence’ line still to be overcome, in practice it is SPEW and the SWP that have provided the main opposition to providing Corbyn and co with real support where it matters most - within the Labour Party.
The case for immediate affiliation was strongly put by several delegates. One argued: “The fight to transform the Labour Party is happening right now. It’s happening in the branches, on the NEC and in a few weeks at Labour conference. It’s not going to be won by people outside the Labour Party. We can’t stand on the sidelines cheerleading.” Another said: “This fight will not wait for us to have a review”, which in reality “kicks affiliation into the long grass”. She urged the union to follow the lead of the Fire Brigades Union, which reaffiliated to Labour last year - in November 2015 there was a special FBU conference, which took that decision.
But things are not quite so simple in the PCS, thanks to the prominence of SPEW and the SWP. While both those organisations declare their support for the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party in the battle to defeat the right, that support is purely platonic. At the conference both SPEW and the SWP opposed not only affiliation, but even a review of current policy. According to Socialist Worker online, the alternative motion supported by the SWP agreed that “the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party was a welcome surprise to trade unionists and anti-austerity campaigners”. In fact, “Trade unionists need to do everything we can to support the Corbyn/McDonnell project in their opposition to austerity.”
However, “everything we can” does not include joining the battle where it really matters. You see, “Despite the millions that trade unions have poured into the Labour Party, once in office it has failed to represent trade union interests.” And how do we reverse this state of affairs? “The most important thing we can do to support Corbyn and McDonnell is to continue to build the movement in the streets and the workplaces”.1 So the answer apparently lies in the SWP’s abstract ‘movementism’ - and definitely not in joining a concrete political fight.
If anything, SPEW’s line is even worse. While, like the SWP, declaring its support for Corbyn and the Labour left, it continues to promote its (Labourite) political alternative: ie, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Tusc, you may recall, was set up to campaign for a Labour Party mark two - SPEW has long declared that the genuine article is now a bourgeois party pure and simple, and so the task for revolutionaries is to campaign for an alternative: the unions must be won to break from Labour and come over to its embryonic replacement in the shape of Tusc.
At least that was the line before Corbyn’s victory. Since then SPEW has even admitted that there are in fact “two Labour Parties”,2 yet, far from abandoning Tusc as misconceived, it is continuing to build its profile - Tusc is now engaged on a tour of 20 cities as part of the campaign for a ‘leave’ vote in the European Union referendum. Unsurprisingly, its showing in last month’s elections was dismal, but SPEW is undeterred. Of course, if it was a question of posing a principled alternative (rather than a Labourite/reformist version of opposition to austerity), then it might be argued that its current electoral forays were still worthwhile. But what on earth is the point in continuing to campaign for a Labour Party mark two?
SPEW’s own report of the conference implies that the success of the executive motion represents a kind of victory (it does not mention the alternative motion that SPEW itself was backing). It reports that “members want to soberly weigh up options, as the struggle within Labour develops”. You see, “Delegates were not convinced that the Blairite right have been decisively defeated, nor that the official left, including Momentum, have the necessary policies and organisation to defeat them.” So clearly it is best to keep out and watch as the right regains control.
And the report in The Socialist, written by SPEW industrial organiser Rob Williams, gives a separate - left nationalist - reason why it is correct for PCS members north of the border to reject affiliation:
It is also clear that among Scottish members, despite warmth towards Corbyn’s policies, there is still a legacy of mistrust towards Labour after decades of rightwing leadership, which reached its nadir in the ‘Better Together’ alliance with the Tories in the 2014 independence referendum. This isn’t helped by Corbyn’s continued mistaken approach to Scottish independence.3
The executive’s motion was moved by comrade Serwotka himself, but it was seconded by an EC member who clearly takes a different view. Laura Dempster said it would be wrong to throw the union’s lot in with Labour right now, while sections of the party “remain in the grip of the right wing”. Nevertheless, she was prepared to support a review of the PCS’s current electoral policy, following which the EC would make its recommendations at next year’s conference.
This shows the divisions even among the non-SPEW, non-SWP left on the executive - divisions which seem to confirm that the vote for a review was the best that comrade Serwotka could have achieved right now.
By the way, Serwotka has confirmed that following the abolition of ‘check-off’, whereby government departments previously deducted dues from union members’ pay on the union’s behalf, the PCS has re-recruited 90% of its membership, who now pay by direct debit. This is no mean achievement, but the 10% loss means that over 20,000 of its former members are no longer organised.
Nevertheless, the PCS has clearly used the opportunity provided by the abolition of check-off to develop and to some extent reinvigorate a good many of its branches. This needs to be combined over the next year with a rank-and-file campaign to win branches for a genuinely political approach to the Labour Party - despite the opposition of SPEW and the SWP.
3. The Socialist June 1.