Squandering the Legacy
SPEW is severing its ties with the PCS leadership - because of its political errors, argues Paul Demarty
We have spilled quite a lot of ink on the Socialist Party in England and Wales, together with its Committee for a Workers’ International, in recent months (although not nearly as much as has been spilled by the various participants in that acrimonious tear-up).
Alas, the bad news for SPEW and its useless leadership is not confined to the CWI crisis. In the background of the CWI story there has been, to be sure, the almost saintly forbearance displayed by the SPEW leadership’s antagonists in not mentioning its domestic misfortunes - even as the leadership and its creatures have gloated over electoral reversals for their despised Irish ‘comrades’. Yet those misfortunes may, in reality, loom large for SPEW’s cadre, as they gather themselves into a laager against their gathering Mandelite foes and enemies.
Among those reversals on home turf must be numbered the increasingly precarious position of its fraction in the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), in which it has been a significant player for decades. For most of the first 15 years of Mark Serwotka’s tenure in the general secretary’s seat, SPEW and he were thick as thieves; but in the last year or so tensions have opened up. Serwotka supported a challenge to SPEW member Chris Baugh for the post of assistant general secretary (AGS) from long-time president Janice Godrich. The first twist in that particular tale was that comrade Godrich is also a SPEW member (and still is, so far as we know), as were most of her supporters. In other words, the fraction was split badly enough that the leadership - so puritanically pursuing dissidents internationally - simply had to let it happen.
In the event, things got even more bizarre. Having won the contest to be the official candidate of the PCS Left Unity platform, which unites SPEW with the Socialist Workers Party and others, Godrich immediately pulled out of the coming AGS contest. Baugh became the LU candidate, but that did not mean the reunification of the SPEW fraction. The minority backed Mark Serwotka’s candidate, Lynn Henderson, for AGS, in what turned out to be a three horse race. In the resulting chaos, it was John Moloney of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - a decreasingly hinged pro-imperialist cult (the AWL effectively leads a rival PCS caucus, Independent Left) - who farcically snuck through to victory - by far the worst possible outcome.
This clearly did little for the mutual affections of SPEW and the Serwotka circle. We read now, in The Socialist, that SPEW has formed its own faction within LU: the Broad Left Network (BLN). The immediate occasion of the faction’s formation is to propose SPEW lifer Marion Lloyd for the big job itself - she is campaigning to become general secretary, which means first of all fighting for the LU nomination, against a very well-entrenched incumbent. SPEW - sorry! the BLN - complains of members being removed from various committees by Serwotkaites, and in general of an increasingly top-down and bureaucratic approach to winning policy. Their founding platform, once the minutiae of industrial tactics are forgone, amounts to this:
A campaign to restore lay democracy and control and to strengthen the democratic accountability of the union to its lay structures.
For an independent political voice for PCS.
For a Jeremy Corbyn-led government that increases pay, stops the cuts and office closures, restores national bargaining, renationalises privatised services, introduces better rights at work, and scraps and replaces universal credit with a fair social security system.1
If this is all a bit of a debacle, it is in part because it seems to be the terminus of what was in many respects a salutary initiative on the part of SPEW. We have been rather acid-tongued in the direction of Peter Taaffe and his merry men and women in recent months, as he embarked on his cynical split with his CWI factional opponents - a process currently grinding towards a conclusion. Yet the leftwing character of the PCS leadership so familiar to us in the past 19 years is an historic aberration, and the fact that it took place is in no small part down to SPEW and - going back further - its earlier incarnation as the Militant Tendency.
The story is, in a sense, one of how we got to one Polish surname - Serwotka - from another - Losinska. Kate Losinska was the president of the CPSA union, one of PCS’s principal forerunners, in the late 1970s and early 1980s; she was a ferocious anti-communist and a fearless fighter for the right wing of the trade union movement. Though she was atypically ideologically committed, she was a fair representative on the whole of the rightwing trend that managed to monopolise the CPSA bureaucracy, and who then managed to sustain that dominance into the days of the PCS.
Yet she and her ilk were not unopposed. Most spectacularly, in 1986 the general secretary election in the CPSA was won by John Macreadie, a Militant supporter; though this was overturned by the courts, with John Ellis of the right winning the rerun, it was a sign that the left was not numerically insignificant in the union, and that Militant played no small part in this.
In fact, John Sullivan - author of the 1980s-vintage satirical sketch of the extant left groups, As soon as this pub closes - chose to interpret the basic outlook of Militant through the prism of its CPSA beachhead:
As is well known, Militant’s only trade union stronghold is in … the CPSA, specifically among social security clerks. One can understand why Militant’s passive propagandism should appeal to such people … A social security clerk is trained to assist the claimant in filling in her form correctly. If the details are even slightly wrong, she may lose her money. Inevitably, this attitude is carried over to the collective task of instructing the working class in the socialist formula for expropriating the bourgeoisie. Just as the individual claimant must put aside the wider calamities which surround her while she completes the form, the working class must concentrate on the nationalisation of the 253 monopolies.2
This is a little mean-spirited, but we bring it up to highlight a couple of things.
Firstly, that there was, in the end, a pay-off for Militant and later SPEW when the CPSA became the PCS, and the last bastard child of Losinska and co, Barry Reamsbottom, was replaced by Serwotka in 2000. It should be said that SPEW policy was to support the soft-left Hugh Lanning in that election (from which Reamsbottom was humiliatingly excluded by not acquiring enough nominations), but it rapidly welcomed comrade Serwotka’s victory and became important allies; and it seems undeniable that it was in part the patient work of Militant/SPEW over decades that meant that there was a constituency for a ‘hard’ left candidate in the end, even to its own surprise. So, while Sullivan may have found the Militant’s overrepresentation in a not especially ‘militant’ union in his day rather amusing, the political layout of the union movement today is drastically different, and we must say that the Militant/SPEW comrades’ efforts paid off.
Secondly that - of all the things Sullivan teased the Militant about - the CPSA/PCS fraction was about the only thing left to connect the 1980s Militant and the post-millennial SPEW. The famous Liverpool fraction was gone; the Scots section was reduced to a tiny rump; Labour entry was gone; sniffiness about ‘petty bourgeois’ feminism and suchlike gave way to wholesale capitulation in various front campaigns; and so on. The great virtue of Militant - its patience - was squandered everywhere except the PCS, where it quite genuinely bore fruit in turning a bastion of the right of the union movement into a bastion of the left.
The weird series of events leading up to the formation of the Broad Left Network and SPEW’s break with Serwotka is in the end the result of its impatience in other matters finally laying waste to its influence here.
The dispute is, at bottom, about the Labour Party. In the 2000s Serwotka had the same scepticism about the political potential of Labour as SPEW - and indeed this continued down to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. A practical man, however, comrade Serwotka rapidly started the tough job of bringing PCS around to a Labour-supporting position. He may initially have hoped that SPEW would make the same readjustment, but the latter, appallingly, has not done so; and now he used the Bonapartist prerogatives of the general secretary - appointment of full-timers and the rest - to bypass the SPEW fraction on the executive. It is this that underlies the BLN, and explains its demands for “lay democracy” and “an independent political voice for PCS” (translation: no reaffiliation to Labour).
It is this that is, in the end, decisive in the matter - both of the legacy of Militant/SPEW in the PCS, and in terms of the immediate future. Yes, as we have said, the fact that PCS is leftwing at all is a great achievement; but there is nothing inherently important in the grand sense about a union being under the leadership of the left, particularly one that is rather less influential than previously. Leaderships change, sooner or later - the question is what impact this has on the wider labour movement. It was enough, perhaps, in the drab days of Blair, Brown and Cameron for the PCS merely to be far-left-led at all. Along with the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, the PCS - under the influence of its various leftwing factions - was always available for a militant rent-a-quote, and to fight at least verbally for coordinated industrial action.
There never arose a decisive industrial battle of the sort that could galvanise the whole movement, but, as it happens, we got something better, in the form of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader and the inauguration of a battle for the leadership of the main political arm of the labour movement. Of the three left-led unaffiliated unions as of 2015, the Fire Brigades Union fairly quickly corrected its position. That left the RMT and PCS, and both would have been very telling affiliations. In the RMT’s case, it had disaffiliated under Blair, despite its ancestors having been amongst Labour’s principal founders in the first place, and maintained a reputation for industrial and political militancy. As for PCS, it is legally barred from affiliating thanks to a piece of post-general strike revenge legislation, and a campaign on that front would have been most instructive so far as the intrinsic biases of the capitalist state are concerned.
That we have got neither so far is in no small part due to SPEW’s obstructionism; and we must insist here that the BLN’s point about seeking a Corbyn-led government is a piece of doublespeak. The problem as it is actually posed is about fighting for affiliation, and thus being present on the field of battle, so as to - you know - actually take part in it. So long as it is paired with the “independent political voice” clause, a dog-whistle for remaining unaffiliated, it is nothing more than a pious wish that one’s own football team should win in a cup final very far away.
We hope that Serwotka, or someone else, can correct course in time; but frankly we cannot ignore the real sense that we are reaching the crisis point in the Corbyn leadership, and it would have been nice to have the PCS on board now, and nicer still years ago. That it is not owes a great deal to the political stupidity of SPEW, for which it will be remembered unkindly indeed by future generations of socialists. Hell, it is not even consistent on this - SPEW formally calls for itself to be accepted as a Labour affiliate, albeit under such terms that no serious party could ever agree (including, for example, the right to stand candidates against Labour). We can only surmise that Taaffe and co consider the latter approach suitable fodder for run-of-the-mill SPEW members wondering why the hell they aren’t where the action is, and the ‘independent voice’ line appropriate for the sectionalist consciousness of the unions (much the same silliness is on offer in relation to RMT).
As a result, principled socialists ought to critically support Serwotka’s re-election, and therefore his renomination by LU, in spite of criticisms of his bureaucratic methods. It is scarcely possible to imagine overturning such methods by means of a political line as confused and fatally diversionary as SPEW’s is, as the struggle in the Labour Party continues to intensify