Winning members that Left Unity cannot reach

Dave Vincent reports on the re-election of Mark Serwotka as general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union

As readers will know, Mark Serwotka was re-elected as general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union in a result announced just before Christmas.

There were only two candidates: Serwotka himself (backed by the Socialist Party-dominated Left Unity PCS grouping, although his campaign leaflets never made this clear); and challenger Rob Bryson, a former member of the Socialist Workers Party now standing for the ‘4 the members’ rightwing faction. Bryson had just a few weeks earlier challenged for assistant general secretary and came within 200 votes of defeating sitting candidate Chris Baugh (SP), so it was felt that he might also push comrade Serwotka close.

However, the more high-profile general secretary has an inbuilt advantage and Serwotka won by a fairly comfortable 37,000 votes to 21,000. But contrast this to the 200 branch nominations for Serwotka, while Bryson had only 16 (his own branch failed to endorse him!). This demonstrates the gulf between the views and preferences of the activists and those of the membership as a whole. The turnout of around one in six was rather higher than the usual one in nine (there are 300,000 PCS members).

The split from Left Unity, Independent Left, neither declared its support for Mark nor stood its own candidate. However, as the IL website seems to be out of action and the faction issued no leaflet to branches, I was unable to ascertain its reasoning.

What to conclude from these results? Left Unity is hyping up Serwotka’s victory (he won by “a huge margin”, it is claimed) as an “endorsement of a left-led leadership” and evidence “that members recognise a strong union is required to fight on their behalf”.

For my part I find it very disappointing that someone so well known as Mark, who speaks from so many public platforms defending public services, constantly strives for public sector unity and now feels we should be standing PCS candidates in parliamentary elections, could not pull in a much greater majority; it is a cause for concern that no fewer than 21,000 members were willing to vote for a nonentity who has no record of fighting for our members, is invisible at PCS national conferences and put out a thoroughly reactionary anti-left election address proposing no alternative strategy.

Left Unity boasts of being the largest left grouping of any union, yet there are tens of thousands of members it does not seem able to reach. What of the five out of six PCS members who could not be bothered marking their election paper and putting it into the pre-paid envelope?

Left Unity correctly asserts that, “whoever wins the next general election, the one thing we can be sure of is that we have to be prepared to battle to defend our interests” and adds: “and this result quite clearly demonstrates that members understand this”. Supporters are urged to follow through the Serwotka victory by supporting the “Left Unity NEC slate” in the April-May national executive elections (in fact Left Unity is standing once more as part of the Democracy Alliance, alongside the non-socialist PCS Democrats) and to win the members to back the call for industrial action in the forthcoming ballot against proposed cuts to redundancy terms.

A campaign among the members is certainly necessary: let us not forget that the NEC called off strike action over pay in November 2008, as the recession hit, having won the slimmest majority I can ever recall for industrial action in my 25 years as a branch secretary. I am not convinced members are more up for action now than they were then. My experience from meetings in October and November has been that, while members are shocked by the attacks on the current redundancy agreement, it took a lot of debate to win reluctant agreement that we have to fight to defend its terms.

The majority view was that any action should be called before rather than after the general election. But there are problems with this. Despite the victory of Leeds bin workers in overturning management attempts to impose swingeing pay cuts, we have recently seen overwhelming support by BA crews for a strike overturned by the courts and postal workers calling off their action before Christmas on their leadership’s say-so. Gordon Brown has survived another bumbling coup attempt and Labour may now appear more united going into the general election. Will any union affiliated to the Labour Party now contemplate strike action before it takes place?

The PCS, of course, is not a Labour affiliate, but this is a pertinent question because, unlike over pensions and public sector pay, the proposed redundancy cuts seem to be directed only at PCS. If they succeed, obviously the rest of the public sector will be next, but this means there cannot be any wider public sector unity on this at the moment. PCS once again faces fighting alone.

If we win a strike ballot (and in my opinion, in view of the likely low turnout, we will need at least a two-to-one majority to make industrial action a worthwhile proposition), will PCS once again settle for a two-tier agreement favouring those in work over future workers (as it did over our pension scheme)?

Added to this is the equally pressing issue of the timing of the cuts in redundancy terms - this can only be because a wave of civil service redundancies is being planned by the treasury. Cut the cost of redundancy and you can fire more workers and offer more work up for privatisation.

All this has to be fought tooth and nail, but the key question is membership confidence, as opposed to membership demoralisation. How can this be achieved?

I will be at the SWP-organised Right to Work conference being held in Manchester on Saturday January 30 with four other members from my branch (Mark Serwotka is one of the guest speakers). I hope to be able to gauge the wider mood from the activists of the many unions who will be there. It only costs £5 to register and I would urge all Weekly Worker readers to attend.