Left under threat

Dave Vincent reports on the left-dominated PCS annual conference, but warns of a possible rightwing revival

Last week’s annual conference of the Public and Commercial Services union took place against the background of the continual success of the left-led Democracy Alliance joint slate for the national executive. The DA - made up of the Socialist Party-dominated Left Unity and “centre-left” PCS Democrats - retained the presidency and vice-presidency and improved its NEC tally to 29 out of 30 places, with the rightwing 4 the Members reduced to one NEC place. As usual, however, 4 the Members were close runners-up for most of the seats, with the Independent Left again third.

The voting turnout dropped from just over 11% in 2008 to 9% in 2009. That has to be of concern for a left-led union constantly proclaiming its progress in developing more young activists, more participation by under-represented groups, and backing for its support for radical policies. The left is dominant among the activists, but is not making much headway amongst our more passive ordinary members.

I will leave aside the largely uncontroversial motions on health and safety, equality, international questions and other issues where most delegates are in agreement - for example, constant reference was made to the MPs’ expense-fiddling scandal in contrast to the merciless attitude adopted against benefit fraudsters who may also claim not to understand the rules. I will concentrate instead on three issues that reveal the political balance and direction of PCS.

Pay strategy

The Independent Left, from the start, had expressed disbelief that the alleged ‘breakthrough’ on pay supposedly achieved by the NEC in November 2008 was actually what it was claimed to be.

In calling off planned strikes, the NEC stated the agreement reached “had to be tested in each department” to see if members ended up with pay top-ups. Supposedly the 2% pay cap had been lifted and departments were now free to recycle some of their efficiency savings into wage packets. But the IL had correctly asserted in its pre-conference bulletins that not one member had got a single penny from this ‘breakthrough agreement’.

As usual an ‘emergency’ motion from the NEC was top of the section on pay strategy and had the effect of manipulating conference into either voting for the NEC (whose motion ran to three pages!) or a critical motion. The executive’s motion contained a lengthy blurb about the current economic situation and what had happened since the passing of last year’s ‘emergency’ motion, and ended with a call for a 6% consolidated pay increase, funding of pay progression separate from the annual pay rise, and a membership consultation through workplace meetings during the summer on what, if any, industrial action members are prepared to pursue.

Motion A21 censured the NEC (this proved to be its undoing) and only called for a work to rule to be organised in support of a claim that all civil servants be paid the rate received in the current highest paying department (the rate for the job).

General secretary Mark Serwotka, moving the ‘emergency’ motion, had to confess members had not received a pay rise but, instead of admitting he had been well and truly had, resorted to blaming departmental mandarins for failing to identify efficiency savings or to seek treasury permission to make top-up payments.

The Independent Left missed a chance to pose any alternative strategy and, while reminding conference that the IL had denounced the spin over the so-called ‘breakthrough’ and said that strike action should have gone ahead, ended up voting for the successful NEC motion and against the censure. IL speakers urged the NEC not to rule out any strategy suggested by our members - including paid selected action if that is what they want.

There is a huge problem here. The NEC is clearly not talking about all-out, indefinite, unpaid action, but it has also made it clear it is against working to rule. Yet our members have equally made it clear they are fed up with ‘day here, day there’ strikes and want paid selected action, which the NEC is absolutely dead set against. Calling yet again for public sector unity is no answer, since with a general election on the horizon it just will not happen. Labour-affiliated unions (the very ones who abandoned PCS last year) will do nothing that might harm the government’s electoral chances. So what does the NEC expect members to suggest during the forthcoming consultation?

Conference also carried an NEC motion opposing the government’s recent threat to make £500 million-worth of cuts in the Civil Service Compensation Scheme - and the NEC is looking to persuade members to come out over this too.

PCS support for union candidates?

The next indicative debate centred on NEC motion A72, which, whilst containing a lot of self-congratulatory blather about the supposed success of the union’s Make Your Vote Count campaign, declared PCS will remain unaffiliated to any political party, campaign for proportional representation, and consult our members on whether PCS should support trade union candidates in future elections. That consultation would inform further discussion at 2010 conference - too late for its conclusions to be implemented in the general election, obviously.

But this was cited as a really radical proposal placing PCS in advance of other unions and, although Serwotka admitted it would probably come too late for the general election, it was important we carry ordinary members with this and “get this right” for the longer term.

It was obvious that this motion was going to be overwhelmingly carried, so I decided to go in for some constructive criticism. I reminded conference that my 2007 motion, which had been dismissed by the rest of the left, called for the opening up of our political fund to allow branches to discuss whether to support candidates standing on an anti-racist, anti-war, anti-trade union laws, pro-public services platform. I said if we had carried that motion two years ago, we would now be better placed to decide on an active role in the next general election. We would also have been able to help fund left Labour candidates such as John McDonnell - a good friend of PCS who again addressed conference and was well received.

General secretary election

After shunning his original supporters (mainly Socialist Caucus - nowadays named the Independent Left) last time around, Mark Serwotka took advantage of the opportunity offered by conference to launch his campaign for re-election as general secretary with a packed fringe meeting. The election will be held in November.

IL has not yet decided its attitude. Its own fringe meeting, attended by less than 20 comrades, seemed to have no specific purpose other a general discussion about where PCS is going. I questioned the reason for IL’s continued existence as an organisation separate from Left Unity. I noted IL’s failure to grow or significantly increase its electoral support, the failure of John Moloney’s campaign to defeat Hugh Lanning for deputy general secretary, its conference support for the NEC over pay strategy, the lack of challenging motions from IL and its indecision over whether to oppose Serwotka.

I wanted to know why the comrades felt unable to carry on putting their arguments within Left Unity, given their lack of progress outside. I asked them to make their minds up on what they think of Serwotka and the SP-dominated NEC. Either they think it is made up of sincere but misguided socialists - in which case IL should rejoin Left Unity; or they think they are self-serving, undemocratic, politically corrupt, disingenuous empire-builders - in which case IL should say so loud and clear and organise on that basis. Instead IL carps from the sidelines, but tones its criticisms right down on conference floor.

Mark Serwotka is likely to be opposed by rightwinger (and alleged ex-SWP member) Rob Bryson. Readers may recall my last article, which reported that Bryson had come within 200 votes of defeating SP member Chris Baugh for assistant general secretary (‘Contradictory results in factional jockeying’, May 14). That will surely embolden Bryson and 4 the Members to go for the main man this time.

In that article I said I could not make sense of how Moloney, backed by the far left, had got within 2,000 votes of Lanning in the deputy general secretary election, yet rightwinger Bryson had come even closer to toppling the popular Chris Baugh.

One answer suggested to me at conference was that some members are prepared to support anyone who opposes the current leadership, such is their anger over the mishandling of the national pay campaign. If that is so, Bryson has everything to gain and Serwotka everything to lose. For example, the NEC elections demonstrated that left candidates, who generally had around 130 branch nominations, were only just able to defeat their rightwing opponents (about 20 nominations).

This domination of left activists over the right was reflected at conference, where 4 the Members were mostly invisible once again. It seems they do not feel they need to win over conference - they aim to appeal instead to the passive voting membership. Given that the left-led NEC talked up the supposed ‘breakthrough agreement’ and now admits it has not delivered a penny to members, Bryson will surely rely on this and, against the background of the MPs’ expenses scandal, will opportunistically compare Serwotka’s high salary with his original election pledge to take a worker’s wage. The declining membership support for industrial action will also be used by the right, which always claims that the left recklessly calls out members on pointless strikes.

However, if Serwotka lost, that would represent a huge setback for the left - in other unions as well as within PCS. But he would have been defeated by current economic circumstances as well as by his own spin. Unlike Serwotka, Bryson would not continually call for public sector unity, would not tirelessly attend left events, fringe meetings, and joint union platforms or meetings of activists. That Bryson did not once address conference on any issue shows his contempt for the activists and reliance on the apolitical, atomised ‘silent majority’.