An 'industrial campaign'

John Moloney is a member of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and the Independent Left group within the civil servants' union, the PCS. He won 11,547 votes in the deputy general secretary election, and was only narrowly beaten by Hugh Lanning (13,755). This healthy vote was won despite the fact that his opponent had a wide range of support from more influential trends in the union, from the soft left over to the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party. Mark Fischer spoke to comrade Moloney about this result and how communists should operate in the trade union movement

You came close to a victory. What does that tell us about the state of politics in the PCS?

Given the small resources we had and the limited nature of the campaign, the result was sufficient, if you like. There was a possibility - with more resources and application - that we could have won. Nevertheless, I think the vote actually demonstrated that when members are given a very clear message in contrast to the spin from the union leadership, when they are given clear industrial alternatives, then they will vote for those alternatives.

We had a terrible turnout, by the way - under 10% - the worst turnout ever in our elections. However, what was illustrated was that the few member who do take note of union affairs can be won over to a more fighting, a more honest campaign.

Our big problem is not the people who did vote - we have an ongoing dialogue with them that we are confident we can win. Our problem is the over 90% of the members of the union that didn’t vote, people who see the union as irrelevant to their day-to-day concerns in the workplace.

So the next question is obvious. Given 91% or so not even taking part in the union on the level of voting, what would have been the real, material effect if you had actually won?

Obviously, it would be very far from a ringing mandate. In strictly formal, democratic terms I would have won, which would not have been irrelevant, given today’s state of the workers’ movement generally and the PCS specifically. My impact once elected would have been more minor. The key thing would have been the positions the NEC adopted, not a one-off vote for an isolated leftwinger. I would have been one socialist among an army of full-time officials.

In formal terms, I might have been the second most ‘senior’ official. Clearly, the brutal reality of the job would have narrowed my opportunities for real independent action. Officials have very limited scope for propagating their own views - the union would have said, quite rightly in many ways, ‘This is the message we want you to put out to the members’.

So, pretty soon, I would be faced with the dilemma of whether I could stomach putting that line out or refusing and having to take the consequences. So, even elected, that would have shown something about the union and the mindset of members - but it would not have had any significant impact on the union itself as an organisation. We would have still had to fight the entrenched bureaucratic apparatus of the union.

If we don’t win the leadership as a whole and - more importantly - if we don’t get that passive 91% voting and actively taking part in the affairs of their union, then we’re all just shuffling the furniture around on the Titanic.

But isn’t that the story of the rise of the ‘awkward squad’ in the unions - or the ‘amenable squad’, as many have turned out? Good votes on minority turnouts can reflect some sort of healthy, but unfocused and inchoate rebellion of advance militants of some sort. This may even have the passive support of something approaching a majority. But unless you engage that majority, the culture of bureaucratic accommodation asserts itself.

It is sad to say, but I think the majority of PCS members are in the union because they see it as some sort of protection scheme, as insurance cover rather than a collective combat organisation for their rights. The fundamental task - getting every union member with an active, informed democratic engagement with their union - clearly has not happened and is a long way off. Turning that round in going to be incredibly difficult.

If we did not take those annual opportunities in the NEC elections - despite all the limitations of what you can do - when members do have an opportunity to vote, to choose between different platforms, well, that would be a dereliction of duty. But even if the Independent Left won, that would only be the first step towards the PCS becoming a proper fighting trade union in any meaningful sense of the word.

So there’s a political crisis of our class, which finds a reflection in the unions. What’s the solution? Should communists simply make themselves into trade unionists to solve the problem of the unions …?

Your implication is important here. Some notion of a ‘stageist’ schema that sees - for example, in the PCS - a more energetic NEC, that has more lively campaigns, that draws more members in, that attracts more members and then, eventually, we can say some things politically - that’s nonsense.

Big political and societal changes are on the way. These will create great fluidity and fissures in things we thought solid up to now. Look at the sort of ‘non-political’ politics that is raising its head now …

Don’t tell me you’re relying on Esther Rantzen - a help line for abused PCSers?

And it would probably be outsourced as well, wouldn’t it? No, I mean out of this wreckage maybe something more positive can emerge. Perhaps by the next election, for example, serious discussion about another party of the working class might emerge. Then that might impact back on the internal life of unions like PCS.

That could change the physiognomy of the entire union movement. At the moment, we are just ambling along and if we are going to dramatically turn things around we have to break our current patterns of work and thought. There are some pinpoints of light that offer optimism for the future.

But at the moment - in PCS and much of the rest of the union movement - things are pretty pedestrian.

So what’s the role of Marxists, then? You’ve spoken as a knowledgeable and mature trade unionist, but I’m not getting a clear idea from you of what the role of Marxists is in the unions. For example, we are critical of some of the ‘silences’ in the programme you stood on in the union elections. Specifically, on your attitude to troops out of Iraq, an attack on Iran and the linked question of the PCS’s affiliation to Hands Off the People of Iran - which I understand you support. Flowing from that, what sort of party are we talking about? Reconstituting our class as a fighting body is a political process first and foremost - surely these are the sorts of things we should highlight as our first priority?

We very deliberately pitched our campaign as an exclusively industrial campaign. In a period in our union where there is such low engagement, what we are trying to do is tap into everyday experiences by concentrating on some key industrial issues - pensions, for example - which are touchstone questions for ordinary members, where you can get a reaction. On the other hand, if you talk about something as mundane as union democracy, their eyes glaze over.

So we very deliberately pitched it as an almost exclusively an industrial project. We were hoping to say to members, ‘Compare and contrast our sharpness on industrial issues with the approach of the leadership’. We wanted to send out the message to union activists in particular that we are serious militants. That we have some way forward for the union.

I’m prepared to accept the idea that this may be wrong. But that was our judgement. It was pitched to union activists, trying to engage with them on a way forward. There is disquiet amongst that layer and we were trying to engage with them and that mood in a positive way. To tell them that their gut instincts about things like pensions, etc were right.

So, aren’t we back to a version of stageism - something you rightly criticised early? That is, we start with what you call ‘industrial questions’, then we might bring in union democracy and then, at some indeterminate point down the line, you might talk about wider questions of ‘high’ democracy - how we are ruled as a popular class, for example. That 91% we started this interview talking about have all sorts of political ideas swimming around in their heads - very few ‘industrial’ ones. So, let alone the more general points about what we do as Marxists in the unions, where should we start?

It may be that we were wrong. But what we did was deliberate and thought out.

I know what you mean about stageism, but there is a sense in which, when you’re a very small group like IL, there are stages. We have to get a certain base, to spread our influence. We are concentrated too much in one part of the union. By restricting ourselves to industrial issues, we were looking to simply getting a hearing in the union. Nothing more.

We could be utterly wrong on that tactic. Your paper and others might critique us generally and my campaign specifically. Fair enough, let’s debate it. I’m quite willing to say we should think about it again. But I do think that - as a first ‘stage’, so to speak - we have to build a small army. I’m optimistic. There are some signs at this conference we have started to do that.

I think IL is one of those elements that is going to be shaped by and have a dynamic relationship with wider political developments. We could be part of something new and positive - but all we can do at the moment is agitate for certain industrial objectives and hope to be part of something wider politically.

But we’re nowhere near that at the moment.