Socialist Party consolidates its grip

Dave Vincent reports on the conference of the civil service union

Last week’s annual conference of the Public and Commercial Services union, held in Brighton, was a clear success for the Socialist Party and its allies, with delegates overwhelmingly backing the SP on just about everything.

But PCS activists and conference delegates do not in general reflect the views of the majority of members and the right is still able to challenge the left when it comes to national executive elections. This year the Democracy Alliance electoral pact between Left Unity (dominated by the Socialist Party) and the PCS Democrats retained overall control, but lost four places to the rightwing grouping, ‘4themembers’. Democracy Alliance candidates usually got around 115 branch nominations, as against less than 10 for 4tm, yet the latter were only 1,000 votes behind on average.

The Independent Left (breakaway from Left Unity) got around 20 branch nominations and overall came third (as usual), while non-faction independents like me, as expected, came last.

I think the reason 4tm did so well is that a significant number of our members did not want to take further strike action to defend the Civil Service Compensation Scheme redundancy agreement. National action had taken place on March 8, 9 and 24 and did not seem to have made a difference. However, since the NEC elections (and the general election) we had a surprise high court victory, which declared the outgoing government’s reductions in redundancy compensation “unlawful”. Deputy general secretary Hugh Lanning (addressing conference in place of general secretary Mark Serwotka, who is in hospital for tests on a possible heart problem), stated this was a vindication of the PCS fight on the political, industrial and legal fronts. He expected members will fight if the incoming government tried to get round the high court ruling.

So the gains the right wing have made seem due to temporary circumstances and members’ perceptions at the time. Nevertheless, rumours that 4tm is dwindling in number and may fall apart soon seem a little optimistic judging by the NEC results.

Conference responded to the high court success by carrying a motion that authorised the leadership to seek reimbursement for pay lost during a strike called in opposition to the government’s unlawful actions, although the Independent Left expressed some concern about relying on the courts.

The dominant theme of the conference was the changed situation following the formation of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition and the need to fight the savage cuts they will seek to impose on workers (one delegate referred to this coalition as ‘Con-Dom’ rather than the usual ‘Con-Dem’ because of its aim to shaft the working class).

On to the main decisions then.

PCS is to launch a new national campaign in defence of civil and public services and to formally approach other public sector unions to seek closer coordination between them on common campaigning and joint action against spending cuts. We aim to organise demonstrations and set up town committees.

We agreed to affiliate to the Socialist Workers Party-initiated Right to Work campaign and to fight expected further attacks on our pension scheme, which the media insist on describing as “gold-plated” (unlike the scheme enjoyed by chief executives, which is “solid gold”, according to another delegate).

On pay there was no challenge to the NEC motion calling for continued attempts to get back to national collective pay bargaining across the civil service and combining with other public sector unions to fight the expected pay freeze or cuts by the coalition government. Conference carried a motion defending a dismissed activist against a background of an increase in such dismissals and other disciplinary actions against activists fighting cuts and office closures.

On standing PCS candidates in future local and parliamentary elections (and possibly supporting those of other unions with similar aims to us), the NEC won support for its very cautious motion. This gives it another year to come up with proposals ready for conference 2011 about how this would work in practice, which would then be put to an all-members ballot. Conference rejected my motion calling for the decision on selection to be made by PCS members in the constituencies concerned and not left totally to the NEC.

We agreed motions calling for a Tobin tax on stock market and banking transactions, a 10% wealth tax on millionaires and for the repeal of all anti-union laws. Conference agreed to work with groups like the Campaign Against Climate Change and Stop Climate Chaos and to support the ‘million green jobs’ initiative.

We took a stance against the English Defence League (and their Welsh and Scottish counterparts), making the point that trade unions need to organise the safety of anti-fascists who mount counter-demonstrations, given the violent nature of EDL supporters and that the best defence is to be found in large numbers attending.

On international issues conference agreed to call for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, to support Greek workers fighting cuts and to campaign against the proposed change of law that would stop the prosecution of Israeli officials accused of war crimes (Gaza being mentioned).

The Independent Left made a very good showing, with a number of its motions getting debated. Its call for a campaign for free public transport was passed. However, its motion demanding that the salary of full-time officers be reduced to bring them more in line with our members was defeated. Although it did not specify any figure or set a deadline for its achievement, the SWP and SP voted against, despite both organisations having a clear commitment to such a position in theory. Only the IL argued in favour (I was not called to speak). One Alliance for Workers’ Liberty delegate made the damning point that Militant and then the SP argue for reducing the pay of full-time union officials when the right was in control, but drop the demand (and practice) when they are at the helm.

Rightwing NEC member Rob Bryson, who was easily defeated when he challenged Mark Serwotka for general secretary, made his sole appearance on the rostrum in support of an unsuccessful motion calling for PCS to disaffiliate from Hands Off Venezuela. He is now hated by the SWP as a former member and was the only delegate booed (although he seemed to relish the reaction). When I asked him later about why he joined and then left the SWP, and why he has now moved so far to the right, there were a number of hostile glances and some critical comments directed at me for daring to be seen talking to him.

As Rob took strike action and stood on picket lines alongside other union members, I see no reason to treat him in this way. I understand the danger for PCS members if he won a leadership election and took the union to the right, but that would raise serious questions about why members would vote that way after having had a left leadership for so long. In any case he says he may not contest further elections.

The SP has transformed conference by steadily recruiting and developing newer and younger activists. Votes for progressive issues are easily won nowadays, but there is an atmosphere of incomprehension, verging on hostility sometimes, at anyone opposing SP motions. Opposition is rare (IL excepted on certain issues) and the whole thing is getting to feel stage-managed. The IL are seen as troublemakers, 4tm as complete reactionaries and if there are any differences between Left Unity and PCS Democrats they are never shown publicly.

If anyone tried opposing this consensus in a serious way from the left, using, for example, arguments found in the Weekly Worker against halfway houses and socialism through parliament, or questioning whether the BNP is fascist, they would not be welcome. It is socialism as proclaimed and defined by the SP, and more and more activists recruited to the SP are now employed within PCS. It seems that SP delegates today can expect future PCS employment, but anyone (such as me) who dares question this patronage is accused of ‘witch-hunting’.

However, I am pleased to note that the majority of delegates nowadays stay in the hall for most of the time in contrast to previously, when it was common practice to remain only for issues of particular interest or to hear expected major showdowns between right and left.

MPs John McDonnell (a warmly welcomed regular guest speaker at PCS conferences) and the Greens’ Caroline Lucas (who was delighted at the PCS invite) addressed us, pledging their support for protecting public services. I imagine many trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party would invite neither.

Overall PCS is one of the better, more progressive, more democratic and more internationalist trade unions, although fighting within the limits set by the SP. Conference cheered when the Unite court victory in the BA dispute was announced and delegates donated £875 in a bucket collection.

I wonder whether this legal victory results from a realisation by the ruling class that making it impossible to take strike action, even though members have voted by 80%-90% to do so, will simply result in union members ignoring the anti-union laws, which actually make for a fairly quiet life for some union barons and are so employer-friendly.

The coalition government must know its planned attacks on workers will be resisted, but the possibility of illegal but effective action is not what they want.