Short-termist and dishonest

Peter Manson looks at the role of the Socialist Party in the public service pensions sell-out

While the main themes of the school were undoubtedly the SP's recent growth and its 'new workers' party' project, there was another one bubbling just beneath the surface and frequently bursting out into the open - the public service pensions sell-out and the SP's role in promoting it. The SP does not quite know how to portray the framework agreement reached between the public sector unions and trade and industry secretary Alan Johnson. In exchange for a temporary truce in the assault on the pensions rights of current workers the unions - including the PCSU, where the SP is in the driving seat - have accepted that from next year new entrants will have to work an extra five years before they can retire. Unlike current employees they will have to pay for the privilege if they want to stop work at 60. Of course, the government wanted to impose a general worsening of pensions rights, including raising the age of retirement, on all public sector workers and the PCSU was to the fore in getting the other unions to make militant noises, including threatening to strike, which caused Johnson to soften his position - to the outrage of employers' organisations and rightwing commentators. But the deal struck is absolutely unacceptable - a two-tier system, where future workers will have much worse pension rights than those employed at present. PCSU general secretary Mark Serwotka describes the framework agreement as a more or less uncomplicated victory: "I am proud to have led the fight to defend pensions," he told the Saturday evening rally. The SP position is more subtle - yes, the comrades crow about having maintained conditions for current workers, but they know it will give them difficulties in the future. There were quite a few people who wanted to talk about the issue at the session entitled 'Whatever happened to the awkward squad?', led by Militant Tendency veteran and SP industrial organiser Bill Mullins. He did - eventually - get round to talking about the PCSU in his long, rambling opening, where he spoke at length about anything that popped into his head, much to the frustration of the chair - and this writer. After making the banal observation that "sometimes trade union representatives have to make compromises, depending on the balance of class forces", comrade Mullins described how Mark Serwotka and the PCSU leadership "forced the other unions kicking and screaming into a united front". Leaders like Dave Prentis of Unison wanted to cave in, calling the PCSU "impossiblists" for trying to defend current members' terms. "Nobody likes to accept compromises," said comrade Mullins. "Sometimes you say, 'The members won't fight, but we should test the water anyway' [by calling a strike ballot]. But not here. I think they were right to compromise." Describing Serwotka as "almost faultless", comrade Mullins said that "shouting sell-out is quite childish" in view of the circumstances - everybody knew that trade union members were so pleased to have kept their own pension rights that they would not fight for future members. First to speak from the floor was CPGB member Lee Rock, the national secretary of the PCSU Socialist Caucus. He reminded the SP comrades that they had not actually supported the "almost faultless" Mark Serwotka in the election for general secretary, preferring a 'unity' candidate to his right. He also reminded them that under their leadership thousands of jobs had been lost in the civil service. Comrade Rock pointed out that in a very few years' time - perhaps six or seven in some departments with a high turnover - new members would make up the majority: "When management come back on the attack, how will we persuade those members to fight?" This was unanswerable. Since the unions had accepted that new entrants were to be treated as second-class employees, why on earth would they lift a finger to defend the 'privileges' of their 'first-class' colleagues? Comrade Rock stated that the union had not even attempted to mobilise the members. It should have led a militant campaign ending in a ballot. Mark Baker, an SP member of the PCSU executive, spoke next and admitted there had been job cuts - "but not one single compulsory redundancy". As for a ballot - "Absolutely: the PCS is committed to holding one." He did not say that the SP will recommend acceptance of the deal when the ballot is held - not quite what comrade Rock was suggesting. Comrade Baker stated that if the leadership had rejected the framework agreement, it would have "divided the union from top to bottom and made us weaker". Didn't we know that "Marxists must look at the situation dialectically"? Comrades like Lee Rock were dishonest, he said, since he they knew they would be unable to deliver a victory in any ballot for strike action. Had I been called to speak, I would have pointed out that there was no reason why members could not be won to fight not only for their own rights, but for those of their children too. In truth, the SP generals had waved the white flag before they had even tried to mobilise their troops. They have no trust whatsoever in the ability of the rank and file to rise above sectionalism and fight for the interests of the whole class. But for Baker, to settle for two-tier pensions was "absolutely the right decision" - although "of course there is more work to be done for new entrants". Pathetic. Roger Bannister, a member of Unison's NEC, was next to leap to the defence of his SP comrades. He did at least say: "We have to be honest - the deal leaves us in a weaker position." But that did not stop him from informing us: "I'll be wanting to know [on the Unison NEC] why Prentis didn't accept the same deal for local government" (Prentis wanted separate negotiations for council workers and firefighters, who have yet to come to an agreement). Comrade Bannister told us that, in the unanimous view of his Unison branch committee, if the deal was put to local government workers the members would "bite the government's hand off" in their rush to accept it. He was another one keen to give us a lesson in SP 'dialectics': "Marxists are realists - we take into account where we are." To those like comrade Rock who apparently do not do so, Bannister said: "I question your right to regard yourselves as Marxists." And in reply to the International Bolshevik Tendency comrade who had quoted the SP's own words from earlier in the year - accepting an increase in the age of retirement would be a "gross betrayal" of principle - comrade Bannister retorted: "Industrial disputes are not settled by principle. They are a power struggle - who can hit the other side hardest." Listening to this, I wondered in what way leftwing union leaders are different from the right if they too have no regard for principles. After all, the right also adopts a paternalistic attitude to the workers and reprimands us for not being "realists". Bannister was followed by an SP member of Natfhe's executive, Andrew Price, who said: "You have no right to characterise the position of the Socialist Party as unprincipled - it's scandalous." The Socialist had stated in two separate editorials that it was "opposed to new members having worse conditions". He added that Natfhe - also "as a matter of principle" - was against two-tier pensions. Just what are these SP 'principles' that have no relevance to your actions in the real world? George Binette of Workers Power agreed with the SP comrades that there had been an adverse shift in the balance of class forces. But "does that mean that revolutionary socialists must agree to a green light to play divide and rule among public sector workers"? Martin Clements, another SP executive member of the PCSU, pointed out to comrade Binette that his union was made up of civil servants - "not a natural hotbed of militancy". Former Liverpool councillor Tony Mulhearn was another one to bemoan the backwardness of the workers: "There is no greater tragedy than Marxists taking the leadership when the members are not ready to follow." Unfortunately, he gravely informed us, "we can't wield a rightwing bureaucracy for revolutionary purposes". Losing all sense of proportion, he went on to compare the "tragedy" of the SP PCSU leadership with the Bolsheviks, who had "no choice but to compromise" over Brest-Litovsk. Comrade Mulhearn is himself a part-time civil servant these days and he told us how the people in his office had "heaved a sigh of relief" when they had heard their current pension rights were to be maintained: "To ask people to take action would have been ultra-left in the extreme." All this was bad enough, but the worst of the lot was Marion Lloyd, yet another PCSU NEC member, who leads the SP fraction in the union. "I am proud to be a member of the leadership," she declared. "We fought to get where we are and got there because we have the correct principle. We have defended the current membership and strengthened the class. If the left had not been in the leadership, we would not have this deal. The right would have sold the rights of current members down the river." It just beggars belief that a deal that will eventually consign the entire public sector workforce to an extra five years of wage-slavery can be said to have "strengthened the class", to have "moved the class forward". But such is the short-termist sectionalism - not to mention the dishonesty - of the SP leadership. In their wisdom, they can "take a bold decision and know when to step back". Comrade Mullins, who summed up in his bumbling, affable style, backed up Tony Mulhearn over Brest-Litovsk. Comrade Mulhearn "must have sold out because he compromised" as part of the Militant-led Liverpool council, said Mullins ironically (although not as ironically as he realised). When it comes to new workers, "Perhaps we'll try again down the line. There'll be another generation - won't there be another fight in the future?" Now that the SP has abandoned them in the present, there will certainly have to be. Related articles * Reviving left reformism The Socialist Party's weekend school demonstrated that sectarianism brings short-term advantages, says Peter Manson * SP rival to Respect? Joni Wells reports on the Socialist Party's Campaign for a New Workers Party * Short-termist and dishonest Peter Manson looks at the role of the Socialist Party in the public service pensions sell-out