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Peter Manson looks at the rift that has opened up in the Left Unity faction of PCS
The Public and Commercial Services union is currently seeing a battle between two rival leftwing groupings - both of which heavily feature members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales.
SPEW has so far been the dominant bloc in PCS Left Unity, to which general secretary Mark Serwotka belongs. Left Unity was the driving force in the successful campaign to replace the former rightwing PCS leadership and put the left firmly in control of the union. It is also supported by other left groups, such as the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Appeal, as well as many unattached individuals.
But now Left Unity is itself deeply divided between, it seems, on the one hand, the SPEW majority and, on the other, just about everybody else, including some SPEW dissidents. Things seem to have blown up after a clash between comrade Serwotka and his number two, assistant general secretary Chris Baugh - a leading SPEW comrade. The latter contended that he should have been promoted to acting general secretary when Serwotka was out of action in 2016-17 as a result of a heart transplant, but allegedly the general secretary’s duties were devolved to unelected full-timers instead. According to Hannah Sell, SPEW deputy general secretary, “It is clear to any disinterested observer that there have been attempts to sideline Chris.”1
And now Serwotka wants comrade Baugh out - to be replaced by the union’s current president, Janice Godrich, who also happens to be a SPEW member. The next elections are not until next year, but the process is underway within Left Unity to nominate an agreed LU candidate. Baugh has occupied the post since 2004, following the defeat of the right a few years earlier. He is, needless to say, supported by SPEW’s PCS caucus and SPEW’s leadership.
In parallel with this, Left Unity must also decide on a new candidate for PCS president. As with the main battle, it has two SPEW comrades to choose between - Marion Lloyd, the official SPEW nominee, and Fran Heathcote, who is in the Serwotka-Godrich camp. There is also an election for three vice-presidents, and Socialist View - the faction uniting Serwotka and Godrich - is putting forward a full slate. Martin Cavanagh, Zita Holbourne and Kevin McHugh have reportedly done well in gaining nominations, winning clear majorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. SPEW won in London by 18 votes to eight.
So what on earth is all this about? To be honest, it is very difficult to get to the bottom of it, especially if you go by the statements issued by the two sides. On the face of it there appear to be no differences of principle - only tactical questions, relating, for example, to the PCS failure to reach the government’s 50% threshold for strike action over pay earlier this year and how the matter should be approached now. (While a huge 85% of those who took part in the 2018 ballot were for industrial action, only 41% of the membership bothered to vote at all.) SPEW claims that the Serwotka camp has resorted to unspecified “slurs” against comrade Baugh.
The Socialist View faction published a ‘Letter to PCS Left Unity members from Mark Serwotka’ last week (November 6). In this he poses a very pertinent question: “Some comrades have asked why an election is needed; why are we supporting Janice in seeking a change in AGS?” But unfortunately his response is less than precise: “The answer is that, when the situation we face is as hard as it is now, the leadership of the union is tested like never before.”
He then goes on to state:
Janice’s opponents have made a number of contradictory claims about the election. On the one hand, they say it is a matter of a clash of personalities, and, on the other, it is a matter of the union’s leadership becoming undemocratic. In doing so they are attempting to hide the fact that they have campaigned against our agreed policy on serious matters of strategy and policy.2
Apparently these “serious matters” amount to the Baugh camp failing to adhere to the union’s “new policy of prioritising organising in the workplace”. Rather, “They have argued for full-time officers to be deployed on bargaining with employers, instead of assisting branches to recruit members and build workplace organisation.” The two are hardly incompatible, I would have thought.
Last week’s article in The Socialist is headed: “Back Chris Baugh and Marion Lloyd for a fighting, democratic, lay-led union” (my emphasis).3 The implication is clear: under Serwotka’s leadership there has been too much bureaucratic, top-down control (although SPEW certainly does not spell out such an accusation). Nevertheless, in response to this, comrade Godrich insists that PCS must “ensure we continue to be a lay-led union and increase membership democracy wherever possible”.4
Then there is the question of the wages paid to the union’s national officers. Comrade Godrich writes: “If elected, I pledge to only take an average worker’s wage” - to which an article on the Socialist Appeal website adds: “something which Chris Baugh has unfortunately refused to do”.5
SPEW is, of course, itself committed to such a policy, but comrade Baugh’s own commitment is rather more vague. He writes: “I have kept my promise to repay part of my salary into union funds and various labour movement and environmental causes.”
Nevertheless, he is defended by comrade Sell, who states:
In a woeful attempt to denigrate Chris’s record, the SV authors write: “Chris doesn’t take the average wage of a skilled worker”, and add that Janice has committed to do so. They and Janice turn their fire on Chris, but what demands have they made on Mark Serwotka?
When Chris first stood for AGS he pledged to move to London, relocating his family at considerable expense and upheaval, in order to be based in the union HQ and be able to do his job effectively. Despite the financial demands of relocating, he pledged in his election address - with the agreement of other Socialist Party members, including Janice Godrich - to repay part of his salary to union funds and make regular donations to strikes and labour movement causes in Britain and internationally. Chris has consistently met that pledge.
A debate over this question is long overdue in the trade union movement, and it is pleasing that both sides are prioritising it. But it has to be said that, going by what both he and comrade Sell state, Baugh’s commitment seems to be rather vaguer than to “the average wage of a skilled worker”.
It is clear that the main bone of contention has little or nothing to do with any of the above. Rather it concerns the Labour Party and comrade Serwotka’s desire to secure the PCS’s eventual affiliation. That is certainly why we back the Socialist View slate. It is not that Socialist View has got clear principles and fully worked out perspectives. Here it is woefully lacking. But what is involved is a struggle to control PCS ... and a victory for Socialist View would strengthen the position of Serwotka and those fighting for Labour Party affiliation.
Here SPEW is unmistakably part of the problem. It claims it is 100% behind the campaign to transform Labour into a “workers’ party” by defeating and driving out the Blairite right. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. SPEW insists that PCS and other non-affiliated unions such as RMT should stay out - until the battle inside the Labour Party has been won without its help. Indeed, SPEW took the leading in trying to get Unite to disaffiliate from the Labour Party!
Incapable of recognising her own hypocrisy, omrade Sell states:
Unfortunately, in our view, Mark has tended to limit his position to supporting Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum … and has not campaigned for PCS to play an independent role in fighting to transform the Labour Party - as we have argued for. Criticising Blairites in general is not the same as actively fighting for a programme to get them out of the Labour Party.
Obviously “fighting to transform the Labour Party” must be done from as far away as possible.
According to The Socialist, “On political representation, we support the election of a Corbyn-led anti-austerity government, but with PCS maintaining its political independence” (my emphasis).6 A couple of weeks later, in restating its support for Baugh’s candidacy for assistant general secretary, it declared: “Rather than unconditional support for Labour, the Chris4AGS campaign stands for the continued political independence of PCS while working with Labour to ensure it implements the promises it has given the union.”7
Then there is this:
Our political strategy should be based on the implementation of union policy to support politicians who support us. This means working with the Labour leadership and parliamentary groups across the UK in support of PCS campaigns and policies. We need a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn to enact a shared and radical programme in members’ and workers’ interests.8
This clearly means that, because the Parliamentary Labour Party, Labour councils and the party machine are still dominated by the right, we must stand aside.
And what about the need to maintain the union’s “political independence”? Such a statement could have been drafted by the right. After all, the bourgeoisie, especially its most reactionary sections, have long insisted that trade unions should stick to defending their members’ interests in the workplace and keep out of politics. And, when it comes to the civil service, for more than 90 years its unions have been legally barred from any political affiliation.
The Civil Service Clerical Association,9 formed in 1921, was banned from affiliating to either Labour or even the TUC by the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1927. While the TUC ban was eventually removed, the clause on political affiliation remains in place - something that should now be opposed more vigorously than ever. In this context, it is shameful to advocate continued “political independence”.
As for comrade Serwotka, he writes:
Janice’s opponents have put forward a dishonest argument against affiliation to Labour, which nobody is proposing. They have put their own political position before our agreed policy and argued that preconditions should be set on our policy of campaigning for the election of a Corbyn and McDonnell government ... Working against the policy in the way Janice’s opponents have done is not only undemocratic, but would make it less likely that Corbyn wins the next general election.
Once again, this is all rather vague. Serwotka should state openly that he is for the repeal of the 1927 act and for PCS affiliation.
As for comrades Godrich and Heathcote, I do not know if they share Serwotka’s desire for affiliation to Labour. Comrade Sell says, “They have not formally resigned from the Socialist Party”. She goes on to add that clearly “they no longer see themselves as part of our party”.
Well, firstly, why should they resign? It is, in fact, excellent that they have openly rebelled and helped launch the Socialist View website. Comrade Sell thinks they have put themselves outside SPEW. If so, why has her central committee taken no action against them? Whatever happened to democratic centralism? Or what Peter Taaffe, SPEW general secretary, calls ‘democratic unity’? Well it seem only to apply to rank-and-file SPEW members. Not union presidents.
1. www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/27940 (September 13).
3. The Socialist October 17.
4. My emphasis - Socialist View: https://socialistview985237313.wordpress.com.
6. The Socialist October 17.
7. The Socialist October 31.
8. The Socialist November 7.
9. The CSCA was renamed the Civil and Public Services Association in 1969 and was the leading force in the formation of PCS in 1998.