Rough ride for Serwotka?

Dave Vincent thinks Serwotka’s campaign is utterly economistic

In November, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, Mark Serwotka, is up for re-election. The closing date for nominations is Thursday October 22 and the ballot runs for three weeks beginning November 19.

At the moment there are only two candidates circulating appeals to branches for support (a candidate needs at least 15 branch nominations to get on the ballot paper). Comrade Serwotka will definitely be up against ex-Socialist Workers Party member Rob Bryson, representing the rightwing bloc, ‘4themembers’. I have heard nothing from the Independent Left (whose candidate for deputy general secretary, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty member John Moloney, actually obtained a respectable vote in April, but was easily defeated by soft left careerist incumbent Hugh Lanning).

Readers may recall that, astonishingly, Bryson came within just 200 votes of defeating sitting candidate Chris Baugh (a member of the Socialist Party, although he failed to declare that in his election address) in the assistant general secretary election. Yet Bryson only had 20 branch nominations, as against dozens for Baugh (see my article in Weekly Worker May 14).

The Campaign to Re-elect Mark Serwotka makes no mention of the fact that the comrade is backed by the Left Unity grouping which dominates the leadership - in fact Left Unity is not mentioned at all. Nor is the word ‘socialism’ or the fact that Mark considers himself a socialist.

His campaign makes a number of election pledges - some of which are fair enough, while others are sheer spin. I agree that Mark will (in theory at least) stand up for public services and civil service pension rights, but cannot overlook (as his campaign does) his settling for the two-tier system we now have.

I agree he will expose the reality of low public sector pay for many workers, but disagree he has any realistic hope of achieving a return to national pay bargaining. Desirable though that would be, of course. Indeed, the left-led national executive abandoned the planned national strikes for pay rises in November 2008 when it finally accepted there was little membership support for action.

It is now correctly prioritising opposition to treasury proposals to reduce redundancy pay from January 2010. Returning to national pay is a pledge Serwotka made nearly 10 years ago and, as Bryson states, is no nearer reality now than it was then.

I strongly disagree with the declaration that the PCS Make Your Vote Count campaign has been a success (how on earth can this be claimed, given the union has never made any kind of recommendation as to which party or candidates PCS members should consider voting for and refuses to fund alternative candidates whose policies are in line with those of PCS?). True, the union is at last promising to consult members about whether to stand PCS members as candidates in a few (unstated) areas. Far too little, far too late in the day - especially since PCS has rejected my conference motions calling for a more consistent approach.

I agree that Mark will seek public sector unity to fight the threatened cuts that the next government will attempt to force through. Through no fault of his own, though, he has not come near achieving this in the battles of the last few years. But he is careful in his election campaign leaflet to avoid blaming those unions wedded to the Labour Party for this.

What of Bryson’s electoral pitch then? “Three months to save our union ... from the control of the far left” is his opener. He makes out that privatisation, draconian sick absence procedures, job losses and lack of pay rises are Mark’s fault. Not the government’s. Bryson decries any proposal for PCS to stand our members as candidates in some elections as doomed to failure, but proposes no alternative himself.

He sneers (not without reason) at Serwotka’s admittedly rather low contribution to the PCS campaign fund, recalling Mark’s original pledge to take a wage much closer to the average of the members he would be representing and the fact that he back-pedalled on that with his move to London on becoming general secretary.

But Bryson himself solemnly promises to pocket the full salary, as is only right and proper for someone “in negotiations with ministers” - the members would expect nothing less. Just what did he learn during his time in the SWP? Bryson goes on to claim the government “isn’t prepared to do business with an extremist-led union”. What “business” will he be willing to do - with or presumably without the support of the “extremist”-led NEC?

In my branch - the largest in the ministry of justice, which is itself the third largest government department - our committee is divided. We cannot forget Serwotka’s and the NEC’s fine talk at past PCS conferences about the need to absolutely oppose the introduction of regional pay into the MOJ and contrast that with the NEC’s actual inaction when it refused to sanction paid selective strikes called for overwhelmingly by an MOJ group conference. We now have regional pay in the MOJ - a civil service first. We are about to debate the election further at an all-members’ meeting, but the fact that leading members in a branch like ours are considering voting against Serwotka might tend to indicate that his position is not entirely secure.

Comrade Serwotka’s campaign is utterly economistic. No mention of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan or indeed any international issues. Nevertheless, taking in the wider picture, I readily acknowledge that, for all the problems I have with Serwotka’s rhetoric and unfulfilled pledges, PCS membership has grown under left leadership, the union has taken more action to defend members and has encouraged more younger activists to get involved.

I appreciate Serwotka’s excellent media performances and the sheer number of campaigns and public meeting platforms he attends across Britain. He is a campaigning general secretary all right. Bryson would be something else entirely. Mark constantly calls for public sector unity and will not subscribe to the pathetic mantra that ‘Vote Labour to keep the Tories out’ is the only option workers have.

So Bryson or Serwotka then? For me, obviously, it has to be Serwotka.

What of the Independent Left, which split from Left Unity in 2006? Its website does not seem to have been updated since April. It stands candidates for the NEC each year and put up comrade Moloney for deputy general secretary, but is not standing against Serwotka despite slagging him off in circulars. Have the IL comrades decided not to split the left vote by standing a candidate because, that is the responsible thing to do? Or are they simply cowards, not ready to face the furore if they did stand and split the vote?

If, on the other hand, IL is recommending qualified support for Serwotka, it should now rejoin Left Unity. Independent Left has not grown outside it and seems to be offering no alternative to Serwotka.