See no evil, hear no evil
Ben Lewis is astounded by the PCS call for the state and employers to be granted more power over the workforce in the name of anti-fascism
It was certainly encouraging to hear the militant pledges made at last week’s Public and Commercial Services union conference to rally members in defence of public services against the coalition government’s ‘austerity measures’ and ‘efficiency savings’ onslaught. Watching from the visitors’ gallery, however, I was disappointed to see PCS members in the department for work and pensions (DWP) and the child maintenance and enforcement commission (CMEC) vote overwhelmingly to give their state employers far more powers to investigate, monitor and sack their fellow workers.
Trade unionists voting for the bosses? Surely not. Such a move runs counter to even the most basic trade union instinct, let alone Marxist consciousness. How was it then that leading members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Workers Party could enthusiastically support such a motion? As we have seen too often, when the intention is to attack the British National Party and the far right, the Marxist ABC is thrown out of the window.
The motion from Barnsley and Rotherham was moved by Keith Williams, who assured us that it was unlikely to be “contentious in this room”. But some of his fellow trade unionists felt that it did not go far enough, he joked: they wanted the employers to ban the Liberal Democrats, the Tories and the Miliband brothers. The motion developed existing conference policy that “BNP membership should be incompatible with employment in the DWP and CMEC”. BNP members are still being employed in these services, and some, like Frank Swaine in Hastings, even stood as BNP candidates - while PCS activists are facing management disciplinary hearings for handing out anti-BNP literature. Apparently this breaches their duty as civil servants to uphold political neutrality!
The motion correctly called for full union support for activists facing management action for handing out anti-BNP materials. Yet in addition it called on the PCS group executive committee (GEC) to “further press management to bring the DWP and CMEC rules into line with the prison service and ban BNP members from employment in CMEC and the DWP”. Comrade Williams mentioned the “success” of campaigns like Love Music Hate Racism, Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism. Nevertheless he admitted that the BNP’s vote had actually gone up. Although the loss of council seats was a setback, the BNP would certainly not be going away any time soon. Summing up, it was a “right and a duty” of public service workers to ensure that those with unacceptable views on immigration, sexuality and religion were not employed.
Seconding the motion, North London SWPer Andy Lawson was far more hyperbolic, rolling out the sound bites typical of national organiser Martin Smith. The “Nazi BNP” had been “defeated” in what was a “huge victory” due to the hard work of activists on the ground - not least through PCS support for LMHR. The fight must be stepped up, though - did you know that the English Defence League is not only backed by a millionaire from Sweden, but “run by BNP cadres”? (Untrue, as Weekly Worker readers will know). The BBC’s action in giving Nick Griffin a platform was “disgraceful” and comrade Lawson could not understand an employer “who does not have a problem” with employing BNP members. After all, “you cannot only be a Nazi on the weekend”.
To his credit, comrade Lawson at least mentioned the “fear of banning organisations” that PCS members worried about their own jobs may feel. But his answer was hardly reassuring: “Not only do we have to get this policy; we have to force it to be carried out.” So we give the employers more power, and mobilise really hard to make sure that they use it!
Two speakers from the PCS Independent Left group argued against. Their IL caucus the previous evening had collectively agreed to oppose the motion. But it took the chair’s casting vote in what was a very close call. Whereas members of the International Socialist Group and Communist Party of Great Britain cast their votes against, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty decided to abstain - presumably reflecting a failure to agree.
It was left to the CPGB’s Lee Rock and the ISG’s George Thompson to oppose this potentially suicidal step. Comrade Rock stressed that the BNP was no friend of the working class movement and that its ideas must be fought. However, he added, we must oppose the BNP with our own ideas and our own political alternative, not by demanding the state do it for us. Why on earth would trade unionists wish to give more power to the new welfare and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith? Not only are his arch-Tory views much closer to the BNP than some might realise, but he is a leading light in a viciously anti-working class government that will be more than eager to track down what comrade Rock dubbed “hate figures on the left” who dare to speak out and organise action against the coming cuts.
Comrade Rock highlighted the obvious fact that the state is the main enemy - both in a general sense and in an immediate one. Who restrained and beat up anti-EDL protestors in Bolton? Not the EDL casuals, but armoured police! Who was threatening to put leading SWP member Weyman Bennett out of politics for many years? Not an EDL baseball bat, but the courts! Lee added that the Public Order Act of 1936 and the Berufsverbot in post-war West Germany - both pieces of legislation purportedly aimed against the far right - were used to hound, harass and persecute the far left. “There can be no doubt,” comrade Rock concluded, “it will be used against the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party and me as a member of the CPGB.”
George Thompson of the ISG pointed out that the employers are already targeting and victimising reps for campaigning against the BNP - do you really think they will use more powers only against far-right organisations, as Keith Williams later argued in his reply? Comrade Thompson had already been stopped campaigning for both the Socialist Alliance and Respect by his line manager, and they would relish more powers to meddle in the political activity of comrade Rock and himself. Not to worry though. Comrade Williams responded: “I am sure Lee is more than capable of looking after himself” if management moved against him. Cheers, comrade!
When SPEW member Katrine Williams stamped the motion with the official approval of the GEC, I could scarcely believe my ears. The BNP and other far-right groups hold views that are “offensive”, she informed us - this from someone whose SPEW comrades have recently been subjected to an outrageous witch-hunt by the Unison bureaucracy (not even the employer!) on the basis of a purportedly racist and offensive ‘See no evil, hear no evil’ leaflet which criticised the (obviously greatly offended) Unison leadership. ‘See no evil, hear no evil’ well describes the touching faith our SPEW and SWP comrades have in the employers and the state.
And who is to decide what is “offensive”? It is in the nature of things that both Iain Duncan Smith and your local line manager could be offended - indeed outraged - by the notion that the exploitative state apparatus must be smashed, the people armed, etc, as much as, if not more than, they will be by idiotic, populist BNP immigrant and Muslim-baiting.
It will be a long, hard slog for our class to refashion itself into a serious political force. Watching the purportedly revolutionary left eagerly back the further empowerment of state and employer underlines just how abysmal is its grasp of democratic principle and how poor its collective memory. Where we need to fight for extreme democracy, we see calls for vetting and bans. In place of class independence, we find class collaborationism. Instead of irreconcilable opposition to the state, we find illusions in its role - as if it were a neutral arbiter upholding the ‘public interest’, or even could be used by the revolutionary left as a protective shield against the far right.
Of course, many of the militants who supported the motion will have done so through a desire to ‘do something’ about the BNP. Indeed, some of the more philistine SWP criticisms circling around conference after the debate were that the approach of comrades Rock and Thompson was tantamount to ‘doing nothing’. Utterly idiotic. We do not need to do ‘something’: we need to do Marxism. This means opposing popular frontism, having no confidence in the state and insisting on working class independence.
A huge fight is on the cards and our class needs to build up its own strength, not call for even more powers to the be vested in the class enemy.