Left high and dry
Dave Vincent gives his take on the forthcoming election for assistant general secretary
In my last article on the Public and Commercial Services union, I reported that two members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales were seeking the backing of the PCS Left Unity faction for the post of assistant general secretary (‘Left in disunity’ Weekly Worker September 6 2018). Janice Godrich, long-serving PCS national president, was challenging the incumbent AGS, Chris Baugh. The AGS election is due in April/May 2019. However, there have been some upsets.
Left Unity groups together socialists in PCS - mainly the SP and Socialist Workers Party. At its national conference held in December LU voted to support Janice as its candidate (amidst allegations of voting irregularities from the ‘Chris4AGS’ campaign). Given that the SP had decided to back Chris again and that fellow SP member Janice was going against her party line in standing against him, this raised the question of whether the SP would expel Janice (and her SP supporters in the new PCS grouping, Socialist View). That, or whether Chris would stand again in opposition to Left Unity. We will never know, as Janice stood down for health reasons, and Chris4AGS demanded that Chris, who had won 48% of LU votes, should automatically be endorsed, as there was no other candidate. Nice try, but Janice had stood in the first place after PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka publicly came out against Chris Baugh, who has been AGS since 2004.
Socialist View is a new faction formed to support Janice against Chris. It seems to now have the backing of a majority of SP members - who are also defying the ‘party line’, as they seem to have supported an alternative Left Unity slate for the national executive (elections for which will be held in April/May), defeating the one put forward by the SP. And Fran Heathcote is their candidate for PCS national president - she defeated the candidature of Marion Lloyd, leader of the Chris4AGS campaign. Given Janice’s ill health, LU is now seeking a new candidate for AGS, and Socialist View is now campaigning for LU members to vote for Stella Dennis, an unelected full-time officer since 2005. She says she can work with Mark Serwotka, who has previously implied that any LU candidate would be better than Chris.
Unfortunately for Stella, another unelected full-timer has announced she is now to stand for AGS - but not for Left Unity. Lynn Henderson, national officer for Scotland and Ireland, president of the Scottish TUC and a PCS full-timer for 14 years, claims she has the support of Mark! And now, another PCS faction, Independent Left, after campaigning for years for more women to stand within the union, is backing ... a man: John Moloney, who is promising not to take the full £90,000 salary for AGS if elected. A similar (winning) pledge was made by Mark Serwotka when he first stood for general secretary.
As for Left Unity itself, it is conducting another internal election to select its AGS candidate - votes must be in by January 25. Chris4AGS seems confident that its candidate will win the nomination this time round, and is demanding more oversight of the vote-counting process.
Once the LU candidate is elected, we will have three socialist candidates vying in a left-led union for the AGS post (maybe four if whoever loses the latest LU candidate selection vote stands anyway!). Left Unity has now become Left Disunity - this in the absence of any organised rightwing grouping in PCS.
The LU conference also endorsed the Socialist View-dominated Democracy Alliance slate - an unprincipled electoral pact between LU and the tiny PCS Democrats. Originally formed to ‘keep out the right’, it has continued for years despite the absence of a rightwing faction today. It really serves to keep out the ‘awkward’ left (Independent Left and independent socialists not in LU) - so much for ‘Left Unity’.
We are expected to believe that all this is not personal, but is political, and supposedly centres on Chris Baugh being for disaggregated ballots over pay by individual departments (with each PCS departmental group being able to add other demands they think members will vote for). The other candidates support a ballot of all departments (or at least the largest departments) for the PCS national 8%-10% pay claim. The union failed to reach the new Tory-imposed 50% turnout threshold for legal strike action last year. After a huge effort 41% cast their vote. The 2018 claim was for 5% or £1,200, whichever is the greater.
But the campaign to reach the 50% threshold in the next ballot concentrates on simply getting more members out to vote in the poorly organised areas, and ignores another key point: you need a strategy members think will win. Lodging a bigger pay claim does not automatically translate into more members voting to strike. Some unions have reached the new threshold and some have not. Where the failure is not due to poor organisation, it must be due members’ disbelief in the strategy.
What is more, a percentage claim without an underpinning minimum simply increases the pay gap between departments (following delegated pay bargaining imposed by the treasury), not reduces it! It is total hypocrisy for AGS candidates to condemn Chris for supporting disaggregated departmental ballots (rather than risking losing one national civil service ballot), when the current PCS consultation of members and branches (which closes on January 25) actually asks them if they prefer a national ballot for the whole civil service or departmental ballots. This amounts to farcical and dishonest posturing.
A disagreement over tactics cannot seriously justify splitting the left like this. For all the arguments over strike tactics, the AGS position does not have the power or sole responsibility to deliver a strike vote. PCS conference sets the industrial action policy, which the NEC implements - though it is usually what Mark suggests should be the strategy via NEC motions to conference each May.
We know the preference of the Weekly Worker’s Peter Manson is for the candidate who will most move PCS to affiliate to the Labour Party (ideally) or deliver votes for Labour in the next general election - he previously declared for Janice (‘Support the Socialist View slate’, November 15 2018). Peter may now prefer Lynn Henderson, who wrote a full-page article in the Morning Star (January 15), which gushed support for Corbyn and a Labour government.
But nowhere does she mention that past TUCs have agreed on united action by public-sector unions over austerity and pay, but that such joint action was not carried through by the largest unions - all affiliated to the Labour Party. PCS is not affiliated to any party and conferences have decisively rejected calls for that to change.
Lynn claims that PCS is “strengthening the organising vigour in every workplace” - typical hyperbole from a full-time officer. If this is the case, why did we only get a 41% turnout in last year’s ballot for industrial action? As president of the STUC, she sets out her close working relationships with other trade unionists, but fails to explain why these unions have not delivered any united public-sector action against the austerity cuts or pay cap and why they sold out the pensions dispute following Britain’s biggest strike since 1926 on November 30 2011.
Lynn cites Labour’s manifesto pledges, made by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to PCS conferences, to warm applause from delegates. She states that, for the first time in her lifetime, a radical Labour government can be elected on a socialist programme. Few left papers, including the Weekly Worker, agree that Labour’s programme is at all radical or socialist. I wonder whether Lynn voted for those of previous Labour governments that were not radical or socialist? So many long-serving Labour Party members who are now avowed Corbyn followers are simply long-standing Labour ultra-loyalists who will support the Labour Party, whoever leads it, whatever its programme.
In a thinly veiled reference to the AGS election (she does not mention it or her candidature), she states that “some sceptics try to claim PCS is in danger of aligning itself too closely to Labour”. This is clearly aimed at Chris Baugh, as all the other candidates support the Labour Party. Lynn then says: “… the reality across the country is that working class people, including PCS members, look to Corbyn to make a difference”.
I paid twice to help Corbyn get/stay elected as leader of the Labour Party, but have been, like many others, increasingly disappointed at his capitulations to the Parliamentary Labour Party right. A man who will not stop the witch-hunts against socialists in his own party, who caved in over manufactured hysterical claims of deep anti-Semitism in the party, who refuses to back mandatory reselection of MPs, who changed his lifelong opposition to the European Union cartel to become a ‘remain’ supporter clearly does not have the backbone to stand up to the capitalists or their press.
Lynn makes this comment: “Even with Corbyn and McDonnell in government, PCS would be required to make the case for urgency and priority of public-service workers’ interests, among all the Tory wrongs that Labour will try to right.” Contrast this with her ending comment: ‘... who can doubt that it is in the interests of PCS members for us to be negotiating with McDonnell as chancellor of the exchequer and with a prime minister not afraid to call himself a socialist?”
Er, I doubt this - as do many, if not most, PCS members. It is utopian nonsense to imagine that one of Labour’s first acts on its election to office will be the award of a large public-sector pay rise. We will see - just as with New Labour, expect a Corbyn government to accept the need for ‘fiscal prudence’. We will be told we have to wait and wait and wait for pledges to be delivered. Once again, the major unions will argue that Labour is our government and we must be patient - we must not take industrial action against a Labour government for fear this will let the Tories back in.
As I have said, Lynn is a very well paid, unelected full-time official, seeking to be an even better paid assistant general secretary, and has far more job security than most of the members she represents. John Moloney calls for all full-time officers to be elected - will Lynn, as well as Stella Dennis and Chris Baugh, support this democratic demand for more accountability? Note that this is SP and SWP policy, but seems to have been quietly dropped when their own members get a chance to become an unelected officer - whenever PCS conference tries to debate such a demand, they argued against it!
The acrimony between the contending candidates and their supporters will continue long after the AGS election, whoever wins. The fact is that the opposition to Chris Baugh was started and is driven by Mark Serwotka’s stated, open desire to see him replaced. It is unacceptable for a general secretary to so publicly interfere in the election of another senior officer and for so-called socialists to back him in this. What next - will Mark tell the factions who he wants on the NEC slate? Why bother with conference when you have a cabal of elected and unelected full-timers in your pocket?
Those in the SP who initially broke instructions and supported Janice to keep in with Mark must now be stunned to see that Mark’s apparent support for ‘anyone in Left Unity but Baugh’ has now seemingly become support for Lynn - who is not in Left Unity. They were prepared to let LU become an organisation based on ‘whatever Mark wants’ and have been left high and dry.
The principled socialist stance now is to take a stand against Mark’s control-freakery (and I say this as someone who urged my branch to support Mark from his very first election contest and all subsequent ones) and support either Chris Baugh or John Moloney. On the question of PCS’s relationship with the Labour Party, I favour Chris over John.