The Public and Commercial Services union is claiming that its forthcoming conference in June will be the most democratic across the trade union movement.
Branches can register as many delegates as they like, but only one will be allowed to vote and they will use their card vote on every motion (the number of votes each branch will have will be the number of members of that branch). I have no quibble with branches having more delegates than they would normally be allowed to have - this means, in principle, far more members might attend and observe this online conference. I never forgot my first conference (in 1981, I think), so enthralled was I by the cut and thrust of the debates, and the politics - I never missed a subsequent conference for the next 35 years until I retired.
In theory, yes, more members can attend an online conference watched from their homes, than would/could attend down in Brighton, but you still have to be interested in debate and making union policy in the first place. Whilst branches had to hold their AGMs this year via Zoom, some saw an increase in attendees (like ours), whereas another branch I know saw a fifth of their usual attendees.
At a physical conference, you can look around the hall and see how many delegates wish to speak and whether they are for or against the motion under debate (we have coloured cards to hold up that say ‘For’, ‘Against’ or ‘Abstain’). In PCS they will always call in opposition speakers to ensure a balanced debate. However, the online conference arrangements require branches to state, in advance, who is to speak on a motion and whether they are supporting or opposing it. It can be seen that delegates will probably not know this information in advance, so we cannot see if the debate is fair. This also precludes delegates wishing to speak who want to respond to a point made in the debate if they haven’t registered this in advance. The president will know, and can choose, who to call in (and will know which factions most delegates are in) and who not to.
Pre-2021 branches could send in as many motions as they liked. But the online conference arrangements make clear that there are four subject groupings and branches can only send one motion under each category. As the duration of the conference will be the same as at physical conferences, it is not explained why there is this limitation. It is not needed. My former branch typically puts in 20 motions to conference and now could only send in four. That is less democracy, not more - our branch AGM had to discuss, in one section, which motion we were sending in and which two, in the same category, we weren’t.
My grave suspicion is that this conference will be PCS’s last. Earlier in the year there was a consultation of branches on the future of the union. Branches were consulted on two options: improving the way PCS is structured and organises; and whether to save money, or to merge with another union (which union was unspecified). We were recently told that 125 branches had responded, but not which option most branches favoured nor what the comments were.
One huge problem of PCS merging with another union will be that it might be affiliated to the Labour Party. Whilst the Provisional Central Committee of the CPGB would be ecstatic about that, most of our members and activists would not. As I’ve previously reported in the Weekly Worker, I was one of the main delegates making successful arguments at previous conferences against motions wanting to affiliate PCS to the Labour Party and against merging with the Unite union.
There is no explanation as to how we can do this (unless individual members can opt out of paying the Labour Party levy?). However, this still leaves PCS affiliated to Starmer’s New Labour party and, far from (as the CPGB continually argues) meaning PCS can pull the Labour Party to the left, that would in reality mean we would be told by the larger unions to shut up and stop rocking the gravy train (sorry, boat).
Although the union we might merge with has never been named, many activists expect it will be Unite. The criticisms Len McCluskey has made and his support for Jeremy Corbyn are close to the beliefs of most PCS activists. We have also been told the union merger has to make ‘industrial sense’.
I do not have to explain to Weekly Worker readers how all the super-unions created via mergers have not been, as was argued by others at the time, powerful, massive unions making governments quake. National industrial action by the super-unions has been rare and I put that down to them all being affiliated to Labour, which has become a conveyor belt for sell-out union full-time officers becoming sell-out Labour MPs.
PCS itself has lost two national industrial action ballots in a row (the votes were overwhelmingly for action, but the turnout was below the Tories’ legal 50% threshold) - to the astonishment of the general secretary and the national executive committee, given the efforts put in to win the votes. In my view this is because the PCS industrial action strategy does not have the confidence of the majority of members, who are fed up with the previous ‘one day here, one day there’ strikes that saw little media coverage and petered out without the leadership formally ending them. PCS still gets only about 10% of members to vote in NEC elections - pretty poor for a left-led union, I think.
Although PCS confidently thinks it will have the best ever attendance at the June online conference, I’m not so confident. We’ll see.
The problem with only allowing one delegate per branch to vote means that the controlling faction can organise the largest branches to vote for the NEC’s preferred positions and motions, which will mean that if the NEC wants PCS to merge with another union (or not) the vote can be predetermined and mobilised via the factions. How is that open, transparent and democratic, rather than secretive, organised and a stitch-up? If it is to be the last conference of PCS as a union we can do nothing afterwards about that.
Another practice I did not like at annual conferences was the fact the standing orders committee (SOC) seemed to place the NEC’s motions on major issues at the top of all the relevant sections, so the NEC dominated all the major debates. If the industrial, political or international situation changed between the submission of motions and the conference itself, this resulted in branches sending in emergency motions. Amazingly, so did the NEC. And once again, thanks to the very obliging SOC, the NEC’s emergency motions were also placed at the top of the relevant sections, so would be debated first. The NEC speaking first on all major debates gives them a dominating kudos and the crucial ‘right of reply’ to any branches arguing against their position. So the NEC gets both the first and last word in the debates and can bring in Mark Serwotka, who has huge support from activists (being our general secretary for the last 20 years, having easily won four elections), as their main speaker. Mark rarely loses a debate at conference and in his opening address always sets out the priorities for PCS as he sees them (they are related to the NEC motions to be debated later, of course).
PCS used to have well over 200,000 members. It now has 185,000 - 15,000 short of the 2020 recruitment target and related to the job losses imposed on the civil service. It may be that PCS, financially, should merge with another union, but we will lose our unique identity and some of the progressive policies we have that many other unions do not. We will lose our democratic culture (way ahead of most unions and the Labour Party). I have been a PCS fanatic all my working life and even in retirement am active in the retired members section. I’m also on my local trades council and have helped revitalise a Unite the Community branch in Calderdale.
The NEC elections used to be a walkover for the unprincipled pact that is the ‘Democracy Alliance’ between Left Unity and the PCS Democrats, which was originally intended to keep the ‘moderate’ group out (they collapsed years ago), but now operates to keep out factions like the Independent Left (dominated by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty). Well, there is a new faction now - the Broad Left Network, formed by activists angered by Mark Serwotka’s shocking interference in getting assistant general secretary (and member of the Socialist Party in England and Wales) Chris Baugh voted out of office.
The Broad Left Network (BLN) is very critical of the current leadership and condemned the recent recommendation of PCS to sell terms and conditions (T&C) of service in exchange for an above-inflation multi-year pay deal. I think they were right, but the members voted overwhelmingly to accept this levelling-down deal. I suspect that a number of BLN activists, when previously on the department for work and pensions (DWP) group executive committee (GEC) of PCS, as Left Unity members recommended a similar deal to DWP members, which was also accepted. The problem with these multi-year deals selling terms and conditions of service (such as overtime rates, annual leave, sick pay, etc) for above-inflation pay rises is that they have taken major groups of members out of the supposed PCS national fight to secure annual pay bargaining with the treasury.
My last activity before I retired in 2018 was to get the ministry of justice GEC to recommend that members reject their version of selling T&C for a pay rise and this resulted in members voting against it by 93% - the highest rejection vote of a pay deal I can recall in over 35 years of activity. But then I am an independent socialist not in a faction.
Given the latest employers’ ruse of ‘fire and rehire’ being applied to Asda workers, British Gas and now Go North West, whose Unite members are on strike, it seems that unions actively recommending members to sell their T&C for pay rises gives the green light to employers to go for ‘fire and rehire’. That affects all workers, whether in a union or not, and whether in a job or not, so we have to win this fight.
We are now seeing people taking to the streets on a number of issues. The Weekly Worker often sneers at street protests, but they at least show people are willing to stand up and be counted and that they care about an issue enough to do so. We have seen an impressive level of self-activity and organising in recent years - first with Extinction Rebellion, then Black Lives Matter, then over the murder of Sarah Everard and now Kill the Bill (against Priti Patel’s Police Crime and Court Sentencing Bill). The trade union movement has stated the absolute need to recruit young workers, but on all these hugely supported street protests it has been mainly invisible. Trade unions are not seen to be interested in issues young people clearly are.
We have seen ever larger anti-lockdown protests and even football fans coming out against the creation of a Super League. Something seems to be in the air - increasing numbers of people are taking to the streets against the mainstream media and establishment narrative. Yet the Weekly Worker will still hector us to join Starmer’s Labour Party to ‘pull it left’! Hundreds of thousands of young people do think they will get more by taking to the streets than by joining largely invisible trade unions or the hopelessly divided Labour Party.
The danger remains that, if the left cannot form a credible alternative workers’ party, then a charismatic, far-rightwinger and a new party could grow very quickly. There remains a widespread distrust of the organised left and anger at their constant prioritising of divisive identity politics over those of class.
A few thoughts on the weekend’s Spring Communist University. Jack Conrad misunderstood my point about the relationship between austerity and Brexit - indeed the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies voted against austerity in 2019, as they had done in 2017, but Jeremy Corbyn’s and John McDonald’s increasing capitulation to capitalism in those two years in their attempts to assure the City of London they were no threat to them reversed their conceptions of who to blame.
If hope of blaming capitalism was gone among those older and now demoralised workers, then the racist message from Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson struck home - it was those immigrants, blacks and Asians who were ‘taking our jobs, houses and NHS beds’, etc. The capitulation of Corbyn and McDonnell to the bogus anti-Semitism witch-hunt was the successful form which that capitulation took.
I appreciated Jack’s counterfactual ‘what if’ talk. But I feel some took this approach too far. Dismissing the possibility of raised expectations by partial victories leading to a leftward surge in the working class was wrong. This was creating “the sea for the fish to swim in” in Mao’s famous dictum. The new mass membership of Labour was that “sea” and I was one of the first “fish” to be hooked out by the rise of reaction in Labour.
Also ‘what if’ failed to appreciate - or rather sought to apologise for - the counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism (David Broder) and the same for its antecedents in Kautskyism and Menshevism (Lars T Lih). Togliatti was not a figure who, ‘on the one hand, did some bad things, but, on the other, has some achievement we can point to’, as David Broder implied. Neither was Kerensky. What could he do with all those ‘committees’ (soviets of workers and soldiers) questioning his every command? What would you do in his shoes, but try to eliminate them, as Lars T Lih suggested? And, although it wasn’t mentioned, Trotsky overruled that in the Red Army and made his commands immediately operable.
But there was no substantial misunderstanding in the Red Army that Trotsky was fighting for the socialist revolution and for them; and the soldier soviets in Kerensky’s (and Kornilov’s) armies knew they were fighting for the government of landlords and capitalists, not just simply for a non-class vlast.
As a young nationalist, I was always told by those in power in Stormont and Westminster that, ‘so long as the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wish to remain part of the United Kingdom, that will be the position of the British government’.
Today we are living with the hangover of partition. Ireland was divided by Britain and two states emerged - the Irish free state, comprising 26 counties, and the new state of Northern Ireland, comprising the remaining six. This state of affairs came about after the Irish War of Independence against Britain’s continued occupation had forced the British to concede partial autonomy for a part of Ireland, while creating a situation whereby they could continue to have an input into the politics of Ireland by influencing those in the north. The Irish Republican Army resisted the British-imposed partition, who imposed it under the threat that otherwise we would face a brutal, all-out war, with Britain using all the military strength at its disposal.
The bastardised state of Northern Ireland came into being on May 3 1921, so there have now been exactly 100 years of partition - 100 years of unionist control of the state and 100 years of discrimination and sectarianism, state-endorsed denial of the rights of the indigenous people to their culture, language and traditions. The Irish people and Catholics have been second-class citizens in their own country.
Though many things have changed - from the civil rights marches of the 60s demanding reform of the state, through the armed campaign for Irish reunification and British withdrawal, to the Good Friday agreement, which saw an end to armed conflict by some and transition into political power by Sinn Féin - some things haven’t changed. The Irish Language Act, which was part of the new decade ‘new deal’ agreement, has yet to see the light of day. As yet there is still no official recognition of the Irish language having the same position in the state as the English language - a language with equal status to be used in civil society and in interactions with state institutions, such as the courts. It is the British who will decide when a border poll can be called in an effort to gauge the appetite for Irish reunification.
The withdrawal of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union has exacerbated the demise of unionism, as the people here overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU, and the new Irish Sea border allows Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union and places customs checks between Britain and Northern Ireland at Northern Ireland ports. To some unionists and many loyalists this dilutes the union. It has led to street violence and more recently illegal parades and protests, which contravene the Covid emergency laws.
Arlene Foster - the Northern Ireland first minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party who resigned from both posts last week - failed to deliver on the protocol changes demanded by rank-and-file loyalists and has paid the price. The next leader - tipped to be a fundamentalist, rightwing conservative, who believes the earth is 6,000 years old; who believes a woman’s place is best served as a mother, wife and daughter; and who states homosexuality can be countered by gay conversion therapy - is the ideal man to circle the wagons with the loyalist paramilitaries and draw us all back 100 years to 1921.
Unionists and loyalists who adhere to the union will never vote to accept reunification and will always threaten violence as their response to ending the colonial link with Britain. With this in mind, to those who claim 50%+1 is not enough to ensure a peaceful transition to a reunited island I would say this: there will always be friction and violence, when the colonial rump of Britain’s presence in Ireland is forced to accept equality with the indigenous population. In order to defer violence a recalcitrant unionist base must be convinced it will be better off in a united Ireland.
If 50%+1 gets a withdrawal from Europe in a national referendum in Britain, it should also be enough for a democratic mandate from the people here for unification - but I believe the result will be much, much higher. In reality if you are a democrat you must accept the will of the people.
Unionism and its loyalist paramilitary bedfellows must no longer have a veto on progress on the island of Ireland. End the veto. End partition. Let Ireland - once a province - be a nation once again.
Writing in the Weekly Worker (Letters, April 8), in reply to a previous letter I wrote regarding professor David Miller (Letters, April 1), Derek James explained why he would not “correct or retract” a statement that he made in an article published earlier this year (‘Defend David Miller’, March 18). In my previous letter, I explained (albeit briefly) why I had taken issue with Derek’s reference to “pro-Shia groups”. In view of Derek’s reply, some further questions must be posed.
Derek’s reply largely misses the point. I had not sought to engage in a debate between dialectical materialism and idealism (which is a red herring that is often used to dispense with, rather than analyse, questions of religion). Some Anglophone Marxists have, paradoxically, adopted dialectical materialism itself as a ‘religion’ - applying it in a reactionary way, particularly against Muslims - forgetting that it is a scientific tool to understand and interpret the world. There is perhaps no better example of this than the British left’s fascination with anti-imperialist and anti-colonial mass movements in Latin America (to which Catholicism and other faiths are often central). Most western Marxists prefer not to even acknowledge such contradictions; there are very few who rush to denounce liberation theology as ‘revisionist’ or ‘non-dialectical’. Yet, we see precisely the opposite situation with respect to mass movements in west Asia. There is much to be said about that disparity.
However, let us first examine Derek’s singling out of Shia Muslims. In his article, he wrote: “our full support for professor Miller’s democratic rights does not extend to unconditionally backing his politics … His alignment with pro-Shia groups and work with religiously-oriented organisations like the Islamic Human Rights Commission points only to a sectional and religiously sectarian form of politics.”
First, professor Miller is not ‘aligned with pro-Shia groups’. To be ‘aligned’ with a group does not mean to have spoken at a meeting hosted by them. I am not ‘aligned’ with the Weekly Worker by virtue of having submitted this letter! Second, despite using the plural (“groups”), Derek is only able to cite as an example one solitary group, the IHRC (even though the IHRC is non-sectarian and identifies as ‘Islamic’ rather than ‘Shia’). Third, contrary to Derek’s assertions, professor Miller has mostly appeared with Sunni-led organisations like Middle East Monitor, Cage, Mend, EuroPal Forum, the Cordoba Foundation, and so on. In other words, there is nothing exceptional or “pro-Shia” about professor Miller’s associations with Shia groups.
That being the case, what was the purpose of singling out Shias? Was Derek suggesting that Shias are “religiously sectarian”, whilst Sunnis are not? Or was he simply trying to use ‘Shia’ as a stand-in for ‘Iran’, hoping that this thinly veiled reference might provoke revulsion? That he was conflating Shi’ism with Iran certainly seems to be evidenced by his response to my letter, in which he presents a dichotomy between supporting the “Islamic Republic” and “the struggles of Iranian workers”. This appears to be a diversion tactic. Rather than unpicking his own apparent anti-Shi’ism and Iranophobia, he cloaks the issue in confused notions of dialectical materialism and internationalism. What results is an astounding example of vulgar materialism and imperialist intrigue.
But it is even worse than that! In his reply, Derek states: “... we do not support [professor Miller’s] political position and alignment with the Muslim organisations [like those cited above], whether Shia or Sunni”. Derek’s preoccupation about working with Muslim-led organisations (I do not call them “religiously-oriented organisations” because that is so vague as to be meaningless) is that Marxists must “not accommodate our politics to them or give them credibility”. This is the sort of chauvinism to which I have referred above; it is antithetical to the aims and methods of Marxist political education that were espoused by Lenin. Indeed, Lenin warned against dividing the workers with ‘anarchistic phrase-mongering’ against religion, which he labelled ‘infant-school’ materialism.
Does Derek mean that no Marxist should participate in events hosted by some of the organisations listed above, because to do so would be a political concession? Was professor Miller wrong to attend events hosted by Muslim-led groups, using his expertise on Islamophobia to highlight the racism of the British state? And is it surprising that a leading expert on Islamophobia would be invited to speak on that very topic by a variety of Muslim-led organisations? Professor Miller was not sermonising on a pulpit: he was engaging in political debates about the outrageous abuses of the British state and its racist, imperialist attacks on Muslims. Derek must surely know this, but he seems to oppose any collaboration with Muslim-led organisations, even if the result of such alliances is the furtherance of political agitation against the bourgeois state.
It is a peculiar form of Marxism that - contrary to Lenin’s views - prevents its adherents from ‘going among all classes of the people’, and all social strata, to elevate their political consciousness. Moreover, Lenin has already explained comprehensively why materialist analyses must not degenerate into vulgar materialism or ‘purely trade union’ economism (which I infer from Derek’s emphatic use of the phrase “workers’ movement”). The materialist method must be in lockstep with the ‘real life’ of society, in which religion can often play a major role and affect people’s social being. To attempt to artificially divorce the “workers’ movement” from everything else would, ironically, be contrary to the principles of dialectical materialism.
Strip her of CBE
The former chief executive of the Post Office, Paula Vennells, has quit as non-executive director of high street chains Morrisons and Dunelm. Ms Vennells, who ran the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, pursued prosecutions against hundreds of sub-postmasters, accusing them of theft and false accounting.
On April 21 the court of appeal quashed the convictions of 39 former sub-postmasters. The court said Post Office bosses knew there were “serious issues” with the Horizon IT system, developed by Fujitsu, yet they continued to bring criminal charges, using data taken from it.
Ms Vennells was given a ‘Commander of the British Empire’ award in 2019 for her ‘services’ to the Post Office and to charity. She was also until recently an unpaid priest in the diocese of St Albans. The Scottish Republican Socialist Movement calls for Vennells to be stripped of her CBE.
We note that the sub-postmasters accused of offences suffered imprisonment, shame, humiliation, financial loss and ill-health. We call for full compensation for those affected. And we call for a full public inquiry.
SRSM national organiser