Left in disunity
Dave Vincent looks at the strange battle for assistant general secretary
I am flattered to have been asked to comment on the forthcoming election for assistant general secretary in the PCS union and the amazing split in the Socialist Party in England and Wales over the candidates - both of whom are SP members! I have read the SP and SWP bulletins on this and am not convinced each candidate stands for crucially different socialistic strategies to take the union forward. At the moment, with the election not taking place until 2019, the current battle is for the official backing of Left Unity at its conference in December or January. Normally, any candidate who fails to gain LU support withdraws.
The current occupier of the AGS post is Chris Baugh, who was first elected in 2004. He is credited with the creation of Left Unity in 1999, when activists on the left were brought together to defeat the attempted legal coup by the right, which tried to retain the general secretary post for Barry Reamsbottom against his elected replacement, Mark Serwotka. The aim was also to make PCS a more democratic and accountable union. Challenger Janice Godrich - who is, I have said, also an SP member - has been PCS’s longest serving president, having been re-elected every year since 2002.
Delegates at our annual delegate conference (ADC) in May 2018 were shocked to hear Mark Serwotka openly declare his support for Janice Godrich to stand against Chris Baugh and to learn that Mark had previously informed the SP that if Chris stood again for the AGS post he would get someone to stand against him. Janice duly declared her intended candidacy on Facebook (although she quickly deleted her post in response to the backlash). It has been said that she will be able to work well with Mark, whereas Chris has apparently not always seen eye to eye with our general secretary.
The SWP, whilst restating its past and more recent disagreements with Mark Serwotka, is supporting Janice. Its justification for this is - wait for it - that Mark Serwotka prefers Janice, who has promised to “revitalise Left Unity” (statement, August 19). That’s it! It is not explained how Janice proposes to do this nor whether Chris would disagree! In fact Marion Lloyd (another SP comrade and supporter of Chris Baugh) took over as LU chair in 2016, so it is unclear how Janice can now claim to be able to revitalise LU - especially once she becomes a full-time PCS senior officer.
A further factor is what will the Independent Left faction do? IL, which includes the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, has stood a candidate against Janice for president for years now. I am sure it will have little time for Chris either, but will it dare defy Mark Serwotka by standing its own candidate? While it stood against Mark in his first contest for general secretary in 2000, it bottled out of opposing him last time he had to stand for re-election (he was unopposed), even though it continually criticises his decisions and record. IL claims to have the policies for PCS that the SP-dominated Left Unity lacks, so will it back up its words with action?
The SP in its August 20 bulletin condemned Janice’s decision to announce her challenge immediately prior to ADC as being “irresponsibly launched at the same time as the start of a major battle to try and win a ballot for national industrial action over pay”. As a branch officer I can confirm that, although her challenge came as a shock, it made no difference whatsoever to our building support for the strike ballot. PCS achieved an impressive 86% vote for industrial action, but there was only a 41% turnout instead of the 50% now required by Tory anti-union legislation. For all the blather on both sides about who is to blame for this, I put it down to Mark calling the ballot too soon.
Although I was the only delegate challenging the NEC’s strategy of ‘PCS alone action’, even the Independent Left, whilst supporting the NEC’s strategy, warned we were not ballot-ready and needed more time to be able to deliver the 50% turnout required. It is important to realise that the NEC did not specify what form the “action needed to win” (as Mark declared from the rostrum) would take. Each department would be consulted on what their members might be able to deliver before any action was called. It is easy therefore for members to vote for action they had been promised they would not have to take if they were not prepared to do more than the usual unsuccessful ‘day here, day there’! Actually, in the circumstances 41% was a very good turnout (last time it had been 24%) after an ‘all hands on deck’ push to get the vote up.
So I have been proved right, while 800 delegates, the NEC and Mark were wrong and apparently there will be no further ballot on national action until 2019. PCS has shot its bolt and cannot now participate in any united union action that may come up. What on earth was the rush to ballot PCS alone about? I suppose it was responding to the ‘we have to do something’ mood of conference, but it will certainly not give us Mark Serwotka’s “action needed to win”.
The SP-backed ‘Chris4AGS’ campaign is now arguing that we need a “special delegate conference” later this year to debate a number of questions posed by the SP in the light of the 2018 ballot and in readiness for 2019, but that cannot wait until our usual May conference debate apparently. All of a sudden this is now posited as a crucial difference between the two candidates (Janice and Mark favour getting more branches “organised” to arrive at a policy for the 2019 ADC and win a subsequent ballot - presumably for ‘PCS alone’ action once again.
What about the campaign’s claim that PCS has been moving towards “creeping bureaucratisation”, with more power being given to unelected officials? Well, the SP should know! Through its control of the NEC it has exercised a system of patronage over the years, with many SP activists becoming, yes, unelected, well-paid full-time officers! And every time Independent Left has called for these officers’ pay to be more closely tied to that of the members they represent, the NEC has opposed such conference motions (despite this being SP policy!), leading to their defeat.
Labour and Unite
The SP is against PCS affiliating to the Labour Party and the 2018 ADC agreed to a consultation of branches on how we can support Corbyn and Labour candidates that are against cuts and in tune with PCS policies. While the SWP says it will be calling for a vote for Labour “across the board at the next general election” (August 19 statement), Janice is not proposing that PCS affiliates to the Labour Party either.
The position of assistant general secretary is really that of treasurer and it is hard to see how that officer can have much influence on our relations with Labour, given that conference policy does not allow for PCS to call for a vote for Labour “across the board”.
Meanwhile, both sides are making false claims about the proposal to merge PCS with Unite. Fran Heathcote and Kevin McHugh on behalf of the SP claim that Mark wanted PCS to merge with Unite to “break the hold of the more conservative union leaderships and take the fight against austerity to a new level” (statement, August 30). Nonsense. PCS was being devastated by the Tories’ withdrawal of ‘check-off’, whereby union subs were taken directly from civil servants’ pay, and this forced PCS to attempt to sign every member up to direct debit. The very survival of the union was looking in doubt. And the idea that Mark could just push Len McCluskey to one side and transform Unite single-handedly is a fantasy.
The SP also claims it has been holding out for certain democratic safeguards in order to preserve the best PCS tradition in the merged union. But this is nonsensical too. It was I who looked at the Unite rule book and was shocked at the lack of accountability and conference democracy within Unite compared to PCS. It was I who produced my own leaflet handed out to delegates. It was I who addressed the 2017 conference, holding up a Left Unity leaflet produced in the run-up to the creation of PCS in 1998, when Left Unity was against the proposed merger because its five democratic demands had not been enshrined in the proposed constitution. I pointed out a certain Chris Baugh was a signatory to that leaflet and asked this year’s conference why not one of those five demands was now being put to Unite.
The SP wanted (wait for it) a “special delegate conference” to discuss any proposed terms from Unite. It claimed that would be more democratic than rejecting the merger at the 2017 ADC. The SP refused to make any democratic demands in advance and we all knew such a conference would see the SP driving through a merger, however bad the terms - PCS was in no position to demand anything from Unite. By the time of that ADC Mark was ill in hospital. Had he been able to address conference and admit we were desperate, we probably would have gone for it. Instead the SP’s John McInally proposed we have a special delegate conference, while Chris Baugh had assured us in an earlier session that PCS was now in the black and its financial future looked more assured. But we rejected any merger with Unite and John McInally was furious with us. Rumour had it a delegation from Unite was present to witness the ‘historic moment’, but stormed out when delegates rejected any deal.
There are so many claims, counter-claims and half-truths about the supposed transformation of PCS if either Chris or Janice is elected AGS. These can be dismissed, as the post just does not have that implied power and nor should it. The left claims that PCS is a member-centred, bottom-up union and that conference is the sovereign decision-making body.
But Janice is likely to be supported by most activists. Chris has occupied a very bureaucratic post as full-time AGS and treasurer since 2004, which has seen him become quite isolated from rank-and-file delegates. By contrast, Janice as president and Mark as general secretary are much more visible at conferences and in union publications.
We are told that Janice was at the recent SP meeting that discussed who to support for AGS. The SP claims that “both sides were given equal time to put their views” and “an overwhelming majority agreed that Chris should stand”. But it seems she has not been subject to any disciplinary action. Maybe she is too important to be expelled - or perhaps a majority of PCS SP members support Chris. Or is the organisation waiting to see what happens at the Left Unity AGM that will decide who LU are backing for AGS, and, to use a favourite SP line at that point assess “the balance of forces”?
One issue that has been ignored is how acceptable it is for Mark Serwotka, as union general secretary and an avowed socialist, to interfere in an election with the aim of replacing the current socialist incumbent. It is not for any full-time officer to tell activists who they will and won’t work with and to declare support for one candidate. That so many have come to support Janice because ‘Mark says he can work with her, but not Chris’ shows the corrupting power of patronage. Back in the days of the CPSA the rightwing general secretary twice interfered with the election of a leftwinger - first when Militant supporter John MacReadie lost his position following a disgraceful rerun, with the media warning members not to let the CPSA fall into the hands of the “extreme left”; and then when Barry Reamsbottom sought to overturn Serwotka’s own election, forcing Mark to take legal action, which succeeded.
This bitterly contested election is a tragedy in a union like PCS - where Chris, Mark and Janice have all done so much to make the union what it is today and all three have helped save PCS when it looked like it was finished. Activists will now be divided on the basis of which candidate they support for AGS. If Janice wins, Mark will be emboldened to interfere in other elections, as if PCS is his property. This is the man who has been far and away the best general secretary in the British trade union movement.
No good will come of this - those who originally created Left Unity in the CPSA and then PCS are now creating ‘Left Disunity’ and duplicating the patronage employed in the big unions to keep the left under control.