WeeklyWorker

22.11.2019
Three left candidates, but it should be obvious who to support

Vote Mark Serwotka

Dave Vincent gives his take on the PCS general secretary election and the factional background.

How many unions have an election for their general secretary where all the candidates are from the left of the union - and where two candidates are female and the current incumbent a male? That truly places the Public and Commercial Services Union as the most left-led in the TUC, surely?

I retired in November 2018 after 44 years service as a civil servant, and 35 of those years, right up to my retirement, were as branch secretary of the largest branch in the ministry of justice (MOJ). I attended every single conference of the CPSA, forerunner of the PCS, then the PCS itself over that period, became a leading left (but non-faction) conference speaker - I was the only independent candidate to ever get (and kept getting) elected to the MOJ group executive committee. I am now active in the PCS retired section and know all three candidates. I stood for the executive of the PCS itself for years, but there has never been a single independent elected to the NEC since its creation in 1999 - you have to be in a faction to have any chance of getting on. I have reported on PCS elections and conferences for the Weekly Worker over a number of years - and I wish the paper carried more such reports from other union activists.

Anyway, ballot papers are now out and voting closes on December 12, so PCS members will learn who is their general secretary as well as who will form the government on Friday December 13!

PCS was created in 1999 and after a court battle that upheld Mark Serwotka’s election over notorious rightwinger Barry Reamsbottom, and Mark has been our general secretary ever since. He was even elected unopposed last time (elections are every five years), yet now faces two female challengers also from the left: Marion Lloyd, a member of the Socialist Party in England and Wales and of the Broad Left Network (a grouping within the Left Unity faction, whose agreed candidate is Mark himself); and Bev Laidlaw of the Independent Left faction, whose dominant group is the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

Mark’s occupation of the role for 20 years is the biggest factor against him, as was demonstrated in my own branch’s special general meeting in September. Only Marion and Mark were put forward, and Mark only secured our nomination by just one vote. Bear in mind that ours was one of the very first MOJ branches to back Mark when he first stood as the socialist candidate against full-timer Hugh Lanning (and Barry Reamsbottom). Mark got threats and abuse back then for ‘splitting the vote’ and allowing Reamsbottom the chance of getting in again. Mark stood on a socialist platform and won - being promoted by the then Socialist Caucus.

So, despite our solid backing for Mark from the start, he only got our 2019 nomination by one vote - why? The members who spoke against him have often been seen on picket lines and regularly attend union meetings, so they cannot be dismissed as rightwing. They expressed the view that Mark has been GS for too long now and want a change - they blame him (unfairly in my view) for the failure to stop most office closures, job cuts and pay freezes. They just think someone else may do better and should be given the chance.

Across the union Bev Laidlaw received the nominations of 16 branches, while Marion Lloyd had 39 and Mark Serwotka 62. But that does not mean that this is a foregone conclusion, as the Independent Left candidates deliver and attract far more votes than the small number of nominations for Bev Laidlaw suggest.

For example, the assistant general secretary election in May also had three candidates. Chris Baugh, the incumbent, of Left Unity (SPEW) had 85 branch nominations and won 5,796 individual votes, while Lynn Henderson (publicly backed by Mark Serwotka) had 39 nominations, but picked up 5,588 votes, and John Moloney (Independent Left and AWL) had just 21 branch nominations, yet he won with 6,211 votes.

The conclusion is that Left Unity does not deliver as many votes as you would expect from its far higher number of nominating branches - John Moloney’s election address is said to have attracted far more ordinary members. One matter arising from the AGS election that is counting against Mark is his then open advocacy of PCS national president Janice Godrich for this position and his open criticism of incumbent Chris Baugh with no evidence given to support it. Janice stood down due to ill health, so Mark then campaigned for Lynn Henderson. Long-serving activists remember how Reamsbottom interfered in Mark’s election, and do not like his own interference as general secretary in this year’s AGS election.

Policies

Both Bev and Marion are long-serving CPSA/PCS activists. As NEC members, they have been involved in various campaigns against office closures and job cuts and for pay rises; they have led strikes and often addressed union conferences. So what are the differences, as laid down in their election statements?

General secretary’s salary: When Mark first stood in 2000, he made a pledge not to accept the GS salary in full, pledging to refund the difference with his previous wage as a civil servant. He maintained this pledge - with ever decreasing donations back to PCS for just a few years - but then it all stopped. This is mentioned by Marion in her address.

Both Bev and Marion say they will fulfil Mark’s original pledge if elected, and John Moloney, in his campaign for AGS, stated that Mark’s salary of more than £90,000 is in the top 5% of UK salaries - as are those of many other trade union general secretaries. As for Mark himself, he is silent on the matter.

Labour Party: PCS is not affiliated to Labour (or any party) despite the Independent Left arguing for this (I argued against at several PCS conferences). Curiously, Bev simply states: “We can - and should - lobby politicians on the basis of our members’ interests, but, rather than relying on the personal friendships of individuals in the Labour Party (a clear dig at Mark) to get our way, we should seek concrete policy agreements ...”

Mark’s address states: “We have persuaded Labour under Jeremy Corbyn to commit to many positive changes, including a return to UK-wide pay bargaining, which will provide fair pay increases for all civil and public servants, creating 5,000 extra jobs in the DWP and massively increasing resources for the HMRC.”

Marion, supporting a Corbyn-led government, also says: “We should not support MPs who have attacked our jobs and conditions. Mark Serwotka has placed his personal loyalty to the Labour Party above members’ wishes.” Personally I would apply that to the leaders of all Labour-affiliated unions. She goes on to say: “I will ensure that we retain an independent political voice. I oppose Labour Party affiliation unlike my opponents. I will work with those in the UK parliament, the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly who support us.” To be fair to Mark, he has publicly stated he is not seeking PCS affiliation to Labour.

Curiously, none of the candidates state PCS policy - which is to urge PCS members to vote for a Corbyn-led government! Why not? They know that most PCS activists (let alone our ordinary members) are dead against affiliation and that many do not like Jeremy Corbyn, and also recognise that the government is our employer, whichever party is elected. They also know that the last Labour government did us no favours.

Industrial action: Bev rightly condemns PCS’s usual national campaign of one-day strikes, held months apart, as being just protest and posturing, and favours targeted action by key workplaces (something I argued for years at PCS conferences and was opposed).

Marion also takes much the same line as Bev - despite being a member of the NEC that supported these dismal failed campaigns of the past, as Bev points out. For Mark though, it is about greatly increasing members’ participation in strike ballots (there have been two recent failures to reach the legal requirement of 50% participation despite the majorities in favour of action).

Strategy

I would argue that we should offer an industrial action strategy members believe will work. That is the reason why other unions have had resounding strike votes, whereas PCS has failed to get the necessary 50%. I also do not believe that ‘PCS alone’ action, on the scale necessary, will be supported by most members ­- I made that point at my last few conferences and have been proven right.

The problem is not just low member turnout in industrial action ballots, but also low union membership. Bev and Marion castigate Mark for PCS’s failures to win strike ballots, but they omit to mention that a July 2019 report on the region they are both active in - Yorks and Humber - stated that union membership stands at just 49.36% (it is even lower in the largest workplaces) and their regional strike ballot turnout was just 46.5%. When they deliver better results in their own region, they can lambast Mark.

It is not the fault of PCS that other (Labour affiliated) public-sector unions promised to deliver united action at successive TUC congresses, but failed to do so.

As I have said, all three candidates are on the left and have decades of CPSA and PCS activism behind them. All have addressed conferences, led strikes and other campaigns, and helped make PCS the progressive union it is today.

My opposition to Bev Laidlaw is partly that the Independent Left leading lights (Bev excepted) do not get on with activists who disagree with them (unless it is just me they don’t like) and I am not happy about the IL occupying both the AGS and GS posts for such a small faction.

My problem with Marion is that SPEW has dominated PCS since its formation in 1999. It formed an electoral pact with the tiny PCS Democrats to its right to keep IL candidates off the NEC, even though the original justification for the pact was to keep the ‘moderates’ out. I disagree with SPEW using its PCS influence to get its members into (unelected) full-time positions and, as Bev has said, Marion previously supported all the positions Mark has argued for - if she had disagreements, activists were not told about them.

Mark is too close to the Labour Party, but so many activists in other unions have said they wish they had Mark as their general secretary. He has always been brilliant on the BBC’s Question time and other programmes, and really inspires people at rallies and protests. His workload is incredible. I do not blame Mark as an individual for the fact that members have not voted in sufficient numbers in recent strike ballots; for the fact that other unions failed to unite with PCS; or for our ‘PCS alone’ action (that Bev and Marion always supported), which has failed to deliver success. It is close, but, along with the majority of members at our nomination meeting, I would back Mark, but I have no vote as a retired member.

A number of PCS activists are utterly dismayed at the disunity of the left and how toxic the comments on the GS election have been on the PCS members forum. Now I hear that followers of Bev and Marion have each been calling on the other female candidate to stand down.