Another rotten fudge
The divisions in SPEW stem from a leadership dogmatically sticking to a totally wrong position, writes Carla Roberts of Labour Party Marxists
It is very unusual to see internal disputes spilling out into the open in tightly controlled confessional sects such as the Socialist Workers Party or Socialist Party in England and Wales. Usually, every effort is made to keep political disagreements tightly under wraps, for fear that the rest of the membership will be confused or the ‘masses out there’ will be put off by leftwingers squabbling. Hence these groups serve up in their newspapers, week by week, an amalgamation of mostly deadly dull reports of this or that protest, strike or front campaign; or a longer piece outlining the ‘party’ line on this or that subject.
Open debate and discussion are virtually absent. Members, supporters and readers are simply fed the line agreed by the committee running the organisation. Should somebody or even a group of members disagree, they are taken aside and every effort is made to silence them.
However, when a dispute emerges within the leadership of such an organisation, things can get a little more interesting. Of course, the comrades will still try to avoid any political disagreements coming into the open, out of fear of appearing weak or confused. There can be a sudden change of political direction when, for example, the arithmetic on the leadership body changes - ie, a couple of people come around to a different viewpoint. Then, suddenly you have a majority in favour of something that until then had previously been rejected.
Considering this, imagine our surprise when last week we read in The Socialist a rather interesting “Socialist Party statement”, entitled ‘Threat to unity of PCS left’. Here we are informed that there are two SPEW members battling it out for the position of assistant general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union.
On the one side we have Chris Baugh, who has held the position since 2014 and is again officially backed by SPEW. But, surprisingly, long-standing SPEW member and current PCS president Janice Godrich has also thrown her hat in the ring. And crucially, she is being backed by PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka. “There is absolutely no justification for this divisive step that threatens a split on the left, which can only aid opponents in the union and the Tories and the Blairites outside,” fumes the SPEW statement.1
The comrades give no indication at all as to why she might have made that decision, which, should she see it through, will in all likelihood lead to her expulsion from SPEW. The statement is clearly a last and rather dramatic warning shot from the Peter Taaffe leadership.
Clearly, there is a political reason behind her decision. But, true to sectarian form, we have to guess. Tellingly, comrade Godrich has now also deleted from her Facebook page her electoral declaration, which, The Socialist says, was posted on May 16, “with letters from herself and Mark Serwotka”. There is nothing now on her page that could indicate such a move. She has not, however, deleted a Twitter post written at 3am on the same day, which states that she is ‘Proud to be seeking left nomination for PCS AGS in 2019’.
Disagreements have therefore moved back into the safe space of the SPEW mothership. Why would this interest us? Is it just the Weekly Worker engaging in idle gossip, as some like to accuse us of? Far from it. We presume the disagreement has something to do with a certain Jeremy Corbyn and the fact that SPEW has been engaged in some rather painful political contortions over its attitude to the Labour Party. This finds reflection in the organisations that it is involved with, like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and the PCS itself.
It is of utmost importance to the whole working class movement that the Labour Party question is debated in public. Why has the PCS not yet followed the lead of the Fire Brigades Union and affiliated to the Labour Party? Why is it not joining with the hundreds of thousands of leftwingers who are engaged in the serious fight to wrest control from the Blairites and pro-Israel lobbyists? Why will they not help in the fight to transform the Labour Party into a democratic, anti-war party?
Comrades in SPEW and the SWP are certainly under serious pressure to join the battle. We believe that this current spat is a reflection of that pressure.
Both Janice Godrich and Chris Bough were seeking the support of the PCS faction, Left Unity, which is still dominated by SPEW, but also includes comrades from the SWP and a number of unaligned socialists. Whoever gets nominated is a virtual shoo-in at the actual election to the position of assistant general secretary. The turnout will probably not be quite as low as the 7.5% at the national executive elections earlier this month, when Left Unity candidates pretty much swept the board, but still low enough to make sure that Left Unity’s chosen candidate gets through. Officially, LU candidates are all standing under the banner of the Democratic Alliance, which is explained by a now ancient electoral lash-up with the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, which once had a level of support in the union.
Interestingly enough, in the last couple of years, the right has not been contesting any leadership positions - they know they would get trashed. The only opposition comes from the Independent Left, formerly Socialist Caucus, which is run by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. They are slightly to the left of LU and tend to focus on condemning pay deals that have led to real wage decreases, while also “ripping up terms and conditions”.2 You would be hard pressed to find any politics on the Independent Left’s website, and does not seem to have published any leaflets for this year’s conference (which has just ended) - or, if it has, they do not seem to have made it onto the website.
The IL’s main focus is on lamenting the decline in PCS membership figures - which, of course, also explains why the union leadership is nowadays rather reticent when it comes to taking industrial action. It is becoming increasingly difficult to get people out on strike. Shockingly, the IL has absolutely nothing to say on the Labour Party question. The whole website is, as I have noted, devoid of any politics. That is what an economistic organisation like the AWL understands as proper trade union intervention. It is dire and uninspiring, to put it mildly.
To affiliate or not?
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka has openly declared that he would like the union to affiliate to the Labour Party. He personally rejoined after Jeremy Corbyn’s victory. But he is something akin to a political prisoner of SPEW, which fiercely opposes affiliation and is a major force in running the union.
In 2016 the union’s conference agreed to hold a “consultation” of PCS branches regarding its relationship to the Labour Party, which included the question of affiliation, as well as supporting Labour candidates. The subsequent report makes for interesting reading, because, as with all referendum-like questionnaires, the outcome depends on what kind of questions you ask and to what purpose.
So, on the question of ‘Relations with the Labour Party’, you would think it might make sense to ask a straightforward question like ‘Do you think the PCS should affiliate to the Labour Party?’ But no, these were the three questions formulated by the SPEW-run union apparatus:
1. What are your branch’s views on the issues that come with affiliation to the Labour Party?
2. Notwithstanding the above, how can we maximise support for the anti-cuts policies of Corbyn and McDonnell?
3. Does the union need a different approach in the devolved nations?3
In other words, branches were not actually asked their views on affiliation, but “the issues that come with” it. So how was the consultation able to conclude that there was “a large majority against affiliation to the Labour Party”? This is not just down to the seriously misleading question, but SPEW itself keeps insisting that affiliation would not give a small union like the PCS enough political leverage to justify the affiliation fees. At its 2017 conference, the union voted for a compromise, which was in reality nothing but the continuation of its long-standing policy of backing candidates who support aspects of the union’s programme, including some Labour candidates.
In other words, conference agreed on “a fudge”.4 And, as tends to be the way with fudges, they have a knack of coming back over and over again until they are resolved one way or the other. At the 2018 conference there were only three motions on the agenda covering ‘political strategy’: one motion from the NEC; an almost identical one from East London and Greater Manchester; and a motion from the ministry of justice department in Greater Manchester, which was presumably instigated by Dave Vincent (who Weekly Worker readers might recognise as an occasional letter-writer) and which wanted to commit the PCS “against affiliating to any party”. He is wrong, in our view, but credit to him for trying to raise the subject head on. The motion was listed so far down in the motion booklet that there was no chance of it being heard.
So another fudge: conference voted through the NEC motion, which explained that during the 2017 snap election “approval was being given to branches to support 91 candidates” - but that this is now deemed to have been insufficient:
Conference recognises that the 2017 approach has its limitations and that it is now not enough to operate a national political strategy based on only local support for candidates. We must now develop an effective political strategy for the next general election that involves advancing our industrial agenda through national union support for a Corbyn-led Labour government.
To that end, there will be another “wide spread consultation with branches, groups, regions, nation committees, sector associations and equalities committees”. This new consultation is presumably designed to distract from the fact that SPEW has simply changed political tack and now wants to offer blanket support for Labour Party candidates - but only in a general election. In other words, it wants to follow the same strategy that Tusc is now pursuing after the Rail, Maritime and Transport union - Tusc’s only union affiliate - changed its view on the matter in the middle of 2017.
The RMT is now discussing affiliation to Labour. If that move is successful and the union is accepted into the party (both seem likely), then obviously it will drop all support for Tusc - and what exactly would be the point of Tusc then?
It is high time the comrades in SPEW stop their obstructionism over this crucial question, join the thousands of socialists in the Labour Party and help us in our fight against the right, rather than issue worthless advice from the sidelines.