The dispute within the left of Britain’s largest civil service union raises key issues for the whole labour movement. Above all, the need for democratic, lay-member control of fighting trade unions. HANNAH SELL and ROB WILLIAMS explain the background to the current situation in the September issue of Socialism Today.
For a decade and a half the leadership of the civil servants’ union, PCS, has been dominated by the left. Both the senior elected officers and the majority of the NEC are members of Left Unity (LU), the broad left organisation in which the Socialist Party plays a leading role. But at this year’s PCS conference, Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, launched a campaign to support Janice Godrich, currently union president, for the position of assistant general secretary (AGS), in opposition to the incumbent, Socialist Party member Chris Baugh, who has held the position since 2004.
Of course, within a democratic left any individual, including those in key positions, has every right to stand for any position. Nonetheless, PCS activists were rightly concerned by this development. This was partly because such a divisive campaign was irresponsibly launched at the same time as the start of a major battle to try and win a ballot for national industrial action over pay. And because they understood that it could lead to a serious rupture on the left, which might weaken the union’s fighting capacity.
Mark Serwotka had previously approached the Socialist Party, giving us an ultimatum that, if we selected Chris Baugh as the Socialist Party’s nominee for the LU candidate for AGS, he would put forward another candidate, and that his preference was Janice Godrich, a fellow Socialist Party member.
It has since become apparent that Janice had already agreed to this proposal and was determined to press ahead, regardless of the outcome of discussions in our party. As is our tradition, the Socialist Party had a comradely and democratic internal discussion, with both sides listened to and given equal time to put their views. An overwhelming majority agreed that Chris should stand. Unfortunately, a small number of Socialist Party members, including Janice, disregarded the party’s decision.
Mark Serwotka initially attempted to argue that his opposition to Chris Baugh was personal. However, it is not credible to suggest that such a serious conflict could develop for purely, or even primarily, personal reasons. To date, Mark has refused to engage in a debate about his political criticisms of Chris, something he would correctly demand of any left standing against him for general secretary. We, however, conclude that potentially serious political and industrial differences lie behind these events, as will become clear as the debate over the LU AGS candidate unfolds.
Socialists’ role in trade unions
Trade unions are basic organisations of the working class through which millions of workers can defend themselves against their employers in the workplace. However, the constant attempts of the capitalist class to incorporate the union tops into the capitalist state mean that there is always an internal struggle within the trade union movement. On one side stands the pressure of the mass membership, who the union tops ultimately depend on for their positions. On the other, the huge pressure exerted by capitalism on all representatives of working people, especially in the unions. The counter pressure of democratic trade union broad lefts is therefore vital.
Our task is to try and act as a lever to aid the development of the trade unions as effective tools for struggle in defence of the interests of the working class. A vital part of this is to fight for the maximum possible democracy and against any elements of privilege or bureaucracy. This was the role we have consistently played in PCS, and its predecessor CPSA. The CPSA had a vicious right-wing leadership, almost literally the ‘M15 tendency’, as shown by the recent release of state papers. The Socialist Party (then Militant) was the backbone of the struggle to transform the CPSA into a fighting, democratic trade union. This was recognised by our enemies – the Guardian reported that MI5 in the 1980s was “most concerned with the Militant Tendency”.
However, we never sought to work alone. On the contrary, we always prioritised the building of an open, democratic trade union left – today known as Left Unity – to bring together all those activists who want to fight for the transformation of the union. Unfortunately, this is not Mark Serwotka’s record. He originally stood for the general secretary against the democratic decision of LU, incorrectly arguing that it did not matter if he split the anti-Reamsbottom vote as there was no difference between the old guard right-winger Barry Reamsbottom and Hugh Lanning, then deputy general secretary, who was also standing.
Nonetheless, this did not prevent the Socialist Party – and LU – going on to campaign for Mark Serwotka’s candidature when Reamsbottom did not secure enough nominations and, subsequently, backing him to the hilt when the right wing attempted a coup against his election. Clearly, the same approach of loyal collaboration is not being repeated by Serwotka & Co.
After the left won control of the union, there have been important moves to democratise and transform PCS. Unfortunately, however, we now see the danger of that process being thrown into reverse, with power increasingly concentrated in the hands of unelected officials. Pressure in this direction is inevitable, given the difficult period the trade union movement is going through, but it is vital it is resisted.
The increased pressures on the PCS are bound up with the stage of the class struggle in general. Since the start of the economic crisis, the capitalist class in Britain has intensified its relentless attempts to decrease the share of wealth taken by the working class. It has made significant gains, from its point of view. The International Labour Organisation’s figures show that UK workers’ average real wages fell by 1% a year from 2008-15.
At the same time, the public sector has shrunk dramatically, with over one million fewer workers than in 2009. This has included a fall in the number of civil servants by around a quarter to 427,000. This is the biggest factor in the decline in membership of the PCS, from 313,000 in 2006 to 195,000 in 2016.
Over the same period, levels of union density have fallen. Overall union membership fell by 4.2% in 2016 alone, predominantly in the public sector and probably linked to job losses. Nonetheless, trade unions remain potentially the most powerful mass organisations in Britain, with 6.2 million members. What is more, the driving down of the wages and living conditions of previously quite privileged sections has resulted in many beginning to orientate to the unions and adopt working-class methods of struggle. In 2016 there was a record low official level of strikes, with just 322,000 working days lost, but 40% of them were down to junior doctors, taking part in determined, militant strike action.
However, for a number of years the union movement has been in general retreat in the face of relentless attack from the capitalist class and Tory government. The result has been a decrease in the degree to which the movement is seen as an effective way for workers to defend themselves. How could it be otherwise when, in many sectors, trade union leaders have not attempted to effectively defend their members? As a result, unions with more militant leaderships, like the PCS, have been fighting a rear-guard action in difficult circumstances.
This was not preordained. In 2011, almost 1.4 million days were lost in strike action, the highest since 1990, as public-sector unions took coordinated action in defence of pension rights. The strikes were marked by the enthusiasm and mass participation of hundreds of thousands of trade unionists, many taking action for the first time, particularly in the strike day demonstrations. They could have been a springboard for further coordinated strike action, as the Socialist Party argued at the time, drawing in workers from the private sector as well. This could have defeated the government and dramatically altered the balance of class forces.
Instead, the leadership of the TUC capitulated and accepted a rotten deal. While there was opposition to this among rank-and-file members, the previous period meant that they were not yet sufficiently steeled and active in the structures of the unions to force their leaderships to change tack. This increased the confidence of the capitalist class to go on the offensive. It also strengthened the cowardly and pessimistic mood of the majority of the trade union tops, who increasingly see their role as only trying to mitigate the worst aspects of any attack.
The role of PCS
The PCS was to the fore in fighting for coordinated action. It was one of four unions that took action in June 2011, which acted as a lever to bring about the 29 union-strong strike that November. Then, when the majority of union leaders settled for a rotten deal, PCS again led the struggle against that retreat. This included LU calling a conference of lefts across the union movement. Inevitably, however, the confidence of PCS members to take strike action was dented by the general retreat.
In addition, the combative stance of the PCS has meant that the Tories have targeted it for attack. Tory minister Francis Maude, for example, launched the offensive against trade union facility time in 2012 by targeting the civil service – slashing it by more than 50%. The PCS were also guinea pigs for the removal of check-off – forcing the union to focus huge effort on getting members to pay their dues by direct debit.
The latest attacks on union rights culminated in the implementation of vicious new anti-trade union legislation, which the TUC did not oppose through effective mobilisation and action. PCS has now fallen foul of these undemocratic laws in its latest national ballot which, while it had a powerful 86% yes vote for strike action, is decreed to be illegal because the turnout was below 50%.
A left leadership cannot magic problems away in a complicated situation and, when that continues for a long period, it can wear down the nerves and determination of such a leadership. Nonetheless, the basic tasks are clear: in the face of each attack from the government, to fight to convince PCS members that they must be prepared to take effective action in defence of their pay, conditions and rights, while preserving the strength of PCS for future battles. This cannot be separated from continuing to campaign for coordinated strike action against austerity.
Unfortunately, over the last few years, the latter concept has been downplayed by Mark Serwotka. Correct resolutions have continued to be put to the TUC calling for coordinated action. However, there has been no serious attempt to create a ‘coalition of the willing’ prepared to try to act together as a lever on other unions – as in 2011 and 2012 – both by publicly appealing to the union tops and by inspiring their rank and file to make demands from below.
Since 2012, Chris Baugh and other Socialist Party members have raised the need to put pressure on right-wing union leaderships by campaigning for joint action with left-led unions on a systematic basis. The potential for building close coordination among the most active and militant trade unions, including joint meetings of NECs – rather than appeals to the TUC and bilateral discussions with some general secretaries – has not been acted on by Mark Serwotka. Even on an issue as crucial as the threat of the new anti-trade union laws such measures were not pursued.
Yet campaigning for those proposals could have played an important role in giving confidence to workers in other unions to make demands on their leaderships. As the determined struggle of University and College Union members last year showed – where attempts by the leadership to accept a woeful deal were overturned by an uprising of strikers – important sections of workers are learning by bitter experience. Endless austerity is forcing new layers to move into action and begin to transform their unions. A left union leadership that consistently puts forward a fighting strategy for the whole trade union movement can speed up that process.
Undermining democratic traditions
Potentially, the proposed merger of the PCS with Unite, first mooted after the 2011 setback, could have been an important step to strengthening the most fighting elements in the union movement. Chris Baugh and the Socialist Party supported the merger provided it was done on a democratic and open basis, providing opportunities to strengthen the left in the merged union. Unfortunately, this was not the way it was approached by Mark Serwotka and others in the PCS leadership. Chris, the second most senior elected official in the union, was kept off the merger sub-committee in an attempt to hurry the merger through, without sufficient discussion in the PCS about the basis on which it would be carried out.
Regrettably, rather than the main motive being to strengthen the fighting capacity of the union movement, the proposed merger would have contained a large element of expediency arising from the difficulties facing PCS. The NEC’s defeat on this issue at its 2014 conference showed that this was understood by delegates, anxious to protect the best traditions of the union.
The way the merger discussions were approached was a warning of the danger of a general undermining of the PCS’s democratic traditions. The previous period has put a huge strain on the union’s structures. Over a period of time, this has led to a dangerous trend towards a decrease in the union’s democratic, lay-member-led traditions, and a strengthening of the power of unelected officials. Chris Baugh and other Socialist Party members have tried to counter this but have met opposition at each stage. Unfortunately, this includes from Janice Godrich, who has been oblivious of these dangers. This indicates that, if elected as AGS, she would not resist this negative trend.
The possibility of creeping bureaucratisation exists in every workers’ organisation, including the most formally democratic. It is not only, or even mainly, related to material privileges. Rather, under the continual pressures of the class struggle, the administrative machine can tend to supplant the collective voice of the rank and file. Workers’ parties and even workers’ states have also faced – and will face – such difficulties. Leon Trotsky wrote of the pressure on even the most dedicated leaders, “to concentrate their attentions solely upon questions of administration, of appointments and transfers; to narrow their horizon; to weaken their revolutionary spirit”. Such processes, he added, “develop slowly and almost imperceptibly, but reveal themselves abruptly. To see in this warning, based upon objective Marxist foresight, an ‘outrage’, an ‘assault’ etc, really requires the skittish sensitivity and arrogance of bureaucrats”.
Faced with a drop in the number of PCS activists – partly as a result of job losses, because of cuts to facility time and, in some cases, due to the difficulties of the period – there is bound to be a pull to substitute unelected full-time officials for the union members. This must be seriously resisted, both from the top and by the rank and file.
Unfortunately, this has not been resisted sufficiently by Mark Serwotka and others in the leadership. Our party has long supported extending the election of officers from the current two elected full-time officials – the general secretary and AGS. As a result, it has become LU policy, passed at the PCS national conference in 2017. Yet its implementation has been continually delayed.
At the same time, the duties of the elected AGS, Chris Baugh, have been repeatedly undermined or removed – in effect, handed to unelected officers. Mark Serwotka justified this in discussions with Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary, and Rob Williams, the party’s national industrial organiser. He then wrote to the Socialist Party confirming his determination to stand a candidate against Chris, alleging “repeated attempts to undermine my decisions and my authority as GS”.
We have refuted this accusation verbally and in writing, but the response of a general secretary to conflict with the union’s only other elected official should not be to remove his duties and diminish his role. It should be to bring the issues to the elected leadership of the union, the NEC, for discussion and decision on the way forward. This has never been done.
Instead, the handing of Chris’s responsibilities to unelected officials has continued, without any discussion on the NEC. This includes events during the very difficult period of Mark Serwotka’s illness and heart transplant. The sensitivity of the situation, with Mark critically ill, meant that the Socialist Party decided that its members would not raise any complaint about the undemocratic manoeuvres taking place.
This has not prevented completely false rumours that Chris was ‘plotting a coup’. In fact, he and other Socialist Party members were involved in discussions within our party on how to defend the lay democracy from infringement by unelected full-time officers. Reluctantly, we agreed that we could not raise that infringement without a conflict with Mark Serwotka, at a time when he was unfortunately gravely ill, and would therefore remain silent.
Normal practise when a general secretary is temporarily unable to work, is that the duties are handed to the next most-senior elected officer – in PCS’s case, the AGS. When Dave Ward, Communication Workers’ Union general secretary, was seriously ill for a number of months, its NEC agreed that Tony Kearns, CWU senior deputy general secretary, would step in on a temporary basis. The same thing should have happened in the PCS. Instead, Mark Serwotka delegated his duties to unelected officials and side-lined Chris Baugh.
Chris and other Socialist Party members have since been criticised for supporting lay group presidents who raised concerns about various aspects of organisation during this period, including the seemingly arbitrary removal of officials in the middle of disputes. Yet, in doing so, we were only endeavouring to ensure that the concerns of lay representatives were taken account of. This was during a difficult situation when issues were not being discussed at the NEC but behind closed doors by a senior management team dominated by unelected officers, with little or no involvement of elected lay reps.
There have been other worrying developments. For example, setting up a new hub structure arising from the cost-cutting restructuring. This has raised the possibility of an alternative to elected regional committees developing, or at least downgrading them, thereby reducing accountability of the appointed officers. The Socialist Party will campaign to ensure this is not the outcome.
In addition, differences have emerged in recent years over organising and bargaining. We believe, and Chris Baugh has argued, that bargaining issues and organising are inextricably linked, and that they needed to be reflected in resource allocation. Mark Serwotka and the circle of unelected full-time officers who support him have questioned the value of negotiations in the current situation. This has led to organisation being seen as an end in itself.
We have also called for an urgent special national pay conference to discuss the way forward after the ballot set-back. Mark Serwotka, Janice Godrich and others, it seems, oppose this on grounds of cost. This is not necessarily an illegitimate argument but, in our view, it is outweighed by the vital need to pull the key union activists together to debate and decide how to defeat the Tory pay cap following the ballot, which will have disorientated a layer of members.
More generally, we believe it is vital that LU acts to fight, as it has in the past, to maintain and extend the democratic lay-member-led traditions of PCS, which have weakened in the recent period.
With May’s administration teetering on the brink of collapse, leading the Blairites to step up their campaign to prevent the election of a Corbyn-led government, issues relating to the Labour Party have assumed increasing importance for the whole trade union movement.
This has been another point of tension between Mark Serwotka and the Socialist Party. This was the case even under Ed Miliband’s Labour leadership, but has intensified since. In 2012, the PCS held a membership ballot on whether it should have the authority to “stand or support candidates in national elections that would help to defend members’ jobs, pay, pensions and public services”. A huge 78.9% agreed that it should.
This was a big step forward, particularly given the history of the civil service. Almost a century earlier, after the defeat of the 1926 general strike, civil service unions had been banned from affiliating to the TUC and Labour Party. Ever since, the capitalist class has promoted the idea that civil servants should not be ‘political’. This seeped deep into the consciousness of much of an older generation of civil servants, and remnants of it exist even today.
In 2005, however, PCS members voted to establish a political fund. Then, following thirteen years of pro-capitalist New Labour governments attacking pay and conditions, and even more brutal attacks by the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition, a mood developed among PCS activists that to fight without a political voice was to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. In addition, there was agreement that none of the establishment parties represented PCS members’ interests and, therefore, they should consider standing or backing candidates who did. Unfortunately, the excellent 2012 vote was never acted on.
Mark Serwotka gave individual backing to Leanne Wood when she stood for the leadership of Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales) in 2012. This was mistaken, in our view, given Plaid’s record of implementing austerity at local level. However, at no stage did the PCS approach other unions to begin discussing standing candidates. In 2015, with Ed Miliband’s New Labour committed to continuing the Con-Dems’ public spending targets, no support was given to any anti-austerity candidates in the general election.
The Labour link
Following these missed opportunities, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader marked a significant and unexpected step forward, which all of LU, including Mark Serwotka and the Socialist Party, wholeheartedly welcomed. Unfortunately, this was not the end of our differences in approach. Corbyn’s election was potentially an important victory for the working class, but it did not mean that Labour had been transformed into a party of the working class. Rather, it was and is two parties in one: a potential anti-austerity party in formation around Jeremy Corbyn, and a pro-capitalist Blairite party dominating the Parliamentary Labour Party and local councils, and determined to defeat Corbyn.
The role of the workers’ movement should be to fight for the transformation of Labour into a workers’ party. This would mean introducing mandatory reselection, removing the Blairites from their positions and democratising the party. That includes restoring trade union rights, readmitting expelled socialists and moving to a modern version of the federal structure on which the Labour Party was founded. This would allow the Socialist Party and others to affiliate.
Unfortunately, the leadership of Momentum – founded to defend Corbyn – has not put forward a fighting strategy of this kind, but attempts to conciliate with the Blairites, most recently by removing Pete Willsman from its list for the NEC election, on spurious claims of antisemitism. Rather than fight to transform the Labour Party, the Momentum leadership sees its main role as trying to ‘police’ the left, making it ‘acceptable’ to the Labour right. In reality, the left will only be acceptable to them if it is completely defeated.
This is why the Socialist Party, along with a majority of the PCS NEC and the 2016 conference, opposed Mark Serwotka’s attempts to convince the union to affiliate to Momentum. He argued for this – against the position of the NEC – on the public platform of a Momentum fringe meeting at PCS conference. We have also attempted – at each stage – to convince PCS members, not least Mark Serwotka, to play a leading role in the battle to transform Labour, not just by supporting Jeremy Corbyn but also by clearly opposing the Blairites.
These capitalist representatives in the Labour Party will do all they can to stop Corbyn becoming prime minister. If, despite them, he does – and they are still in the Labour Party – they will attempt to sabotage any attempt to implement radical policies in the interests of the working class. A Corbyn-led government will be far stronger if Labour’s pro-capitalist wing is removed beforehand. The Blairites are one of the many means the capitalist class will use to try to force him to retreat. A fighting union movement, demanding Corbyn implements policies in workers’ interests, will be vital.
That is why, when a consultation on political strategy was launched in 2016, Socialist Party members argued strongly that it should include a reference to the MPs seeking to undermine Corbyn. The original draft, by talking about “a new anti-austerity leadership” of Labour and a “huge influx of members”, without any reference to the problems, potentially disarmed PCS members. However, our attempts to convince Mark Serwotka’s office to include a reference to local Labour councils implementing cuts were not successful.
We also argued, again unsuccessfully, for a reference to the current lack of democratic structures in the Labour Party. The document referred to the decision of the Fire Brigades Union to re-affiliate. Our suggestion to include the position of the left in the RMT not to re-affiliate while the existing undemocratic Labour Party structures remained was not agreed. In the event, a majority of those responding to the political consultation opposed affiliation.
This year’s conference agreed to launch a new consultation where arguments for affiliation will be put. The Socialist Party will oppose passive affiliation to the existing Labour Party structure, but will argue for the PCS to continue to support Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies, while engaging with the Labour leadership on how the party’s structures could be transformed.
A wider relevance
These are just some of the issues raised in the PCS left in recent years. It is inevitable and healthy that debate takes place. Unfortunately, the fact that Mark Serwotka appears to find raising such issues unacceptable is a retreat from the best traditions of Left Unity, which has always encouraged open, democratic discussion.
We do not accept that the ‘personal’ behaviour of Chris Baugh is responsible for the current situation. Not one concrete allegation about his behaviour has been made within LU or on the PCS NEC. In reality, this conflict is a reflection of a certain tiredness after a difficult period, and the beginning of a worrying trend towards the undermining of lay democracy within the union.
Why has that manifested itself in opposition to one individual, Chris Baugh? Firstly, as the only other elected full-time official, it has naturally occurred that those who have come into conflict with unelected full-time officials acting in Mark Serwotka’s name look to Chris for assistance. Secondly, because of his membership of the Socialist Party.
Of course, there are numerous good left activists in PCS who are not members or supporters of the Socialist Party, many of whom support Chris for AGS. And, unfortunately, Janice Godrich agreed to be Mark Serwotka’s preferred candidate to replace Chris despite being a member of the Socialist Party. Nonetheless, being part of a Marxist party – with a programme for the transformation of the union movement, and of society – has aided Chris and others in standing firm under considerable pressure.
Not for nothing did MI5’s Subversion in Public Life organisation – for monitoring ‘extremists’ in the 1980s – consider us the “most threatening Trotskyist group in Britain” in the civil service. It said our “greatest strengths” were our clarity of ideas and “the dedication of its members” to fighting for the interests of the working class.
We call upon all rank-and-file PCS members not to go down the dangerous road represented by Janice Godrich’s candidature for AGS, and to support Chris Baugh and the Socialist Party’s well-tested methods of building open, democratic, fighting broad lefts as a lever to transform the trade union movement. This discussion has relevance not just for PCS members but for every trade unionist and worker.