PCS: the real issues at stake – a reply to Socialist View
Hannah Sell, Socialist Party deputy general secretary
Socialist View has published an article in the names of Fran Heathcote and Kevin McHugh – A Response to Socialism Today, 30 August – on their support for Janice Godrich’s campaign to be elected PCS assistant general secretary (AGS). It is a reply to our article, The Real Issues At Stake in Socialism Today No.221, yet it answers none of the central points we raised.
The authors of the article on Socialist View (SV) – a new grouping set up to oppose Chris Baugh’s re-election as AGS – correctly point out that we sought to analyse the reasons behind Janice Godrich’s decision, backed by Mark Serwotka, to stand against Chris for the AGS.
At least our article has forced supporters of Janice Godrich’s campaign to acknowledge in writing that this is what they are doing. Up until now, behind the scenes denigration of Chris’s record has been combined with Janice publicly trying to give the impression that her decision to stand is ‘business as usual’, with no recognition it is against the incumbent, who has been elected three times as the Left Unity-supported AGS. Yet, while the SV article acknowledges that reality, it still gives no credible explanation for taking what is the most divisive act within the left in the history of PCS. It is this decision, not the Socialist Party’s attempts to analyse it, which is responsible for the sharp debate on the left in PCS.
Everyone will acknowledge the positive role that the left, including Janice Godrich, Mark Serwotka and Chris Baugh, played in fighting to transform the union after taking the leadership from the right. Inevitably debates took place on different issues, both before and after Chris was elected as AGS in 2004. Discussion and debate at every level of the union is healthy, enabling the union to come to the best decisions in order to defend and support members. Unfortunately, current events reflect a growing unwillingness by Mark Serwotka and his allies to participate in the kind of open and democratic discussion on which Left Unity was founded and built.
In Socialism Today we explained that PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka put an ultimatum to the Socialist Party that if we again put forward Chris Baugh for AGS he would stand a candidate against him. He argued his preference was for Janice Godrich to stand and that his motivations were not political but personal. The reply to us denies the latter point, but Janice and her supporters repeatedly made it in the discussions in the Socialist Party on how we should respond to Mark’s ultimatum. Mark Serwotka also explained in his letter of 28 February 2018 to Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary, that he had, “made it clear that what is at stake has not been political; it has not been a matter of Chris’s political ideas or allegiances”. He gave, in our view, no credible explanation of what it was ‘a matter of’, only referring to “repeated attempts to undermine my decisions and authority as GS”, and Chris’s supposed “divisive” approach.
Following a democratic discussion in which all sides had every opportunity to put their point of view, there was overwhelming agreement in the Socialist Party’s PCS caucus with our National Committee’s unanimous decision to support Chris Baugh as our nomination for the Left Unity (LU) candidate for AGS. Unfortunately, a small minority chose to ignore that democratic decision and go ahead and stand Janice Godrich for AGS.
We have argued that potentially serious differences on industrial and political strategy, and on union democracy, lay behind these events. The response to our article confirms our case.
Unfortunately, it is typical of some of Janice’s supporters’ false methods of argument to put up straw men in order to attempt to bombastically smash them down. The SV article claims we described PCS as “an undemocratic union run by a bureaucratic leadership which is retreating in the face of Tory attacks”. We said nothing of the kind. On the contrary, we highlighted the positive role of PCS as a democratic left-led militant trade union, with a proud record of fighting in defence of its members and campaigning for coordinated action across the public sector.
We also raised the danger of aspects of that positive record being thrown into reverse. We would welcome a serious discussion on these issues. Instead, they are ignored, answered only with proclamations about how the PCS is a “beacon to our movement” led by “two of the most principled socialist leaders of the British trade union movement”. This is a diversion from the real issues, and ignores that the PCS is collectively led, with members of LU, including Chris Baugh, playing a central role.
We raised that, while in recent years the PCS leadership has continued to correctly call for coordinated action, there had not been sufficiently serious approaches to other left unions for joint action, thereby attempting to create a ‘coalition of the willing’ to exert pressure on the TUC as a whole to act. We were not, as the SV authors suggest, turning “tactical issues into matters of fundamental principle”. On the contrary, as we explained, every issue we raised is discussable – and we would welcome democratic discussion on them as in the best traditions of LU.
Clearly, in the recent period where the big majority of trade union leaders have been in retreat, it would not have been easy to fight for coordinated action, no matter how correct the actions of the leadership. We argue, however, that more could and should have been done. Chris and other Socialist Party members have proposed initiatives on numerous occasions which have not been pursued, including joint meetings of the NECs of the main public-sector unions. It is not a serious response to just refer back to the role of Janice, “as the chair of PCS Left Unity, who proposed and made reality a major meeting of activists from across the trade union movement to organise against the sell-out of the pensions dispute”. That meeting is rightly praised in our article.
However, the idea for it did not spring fully formed from the head of Janice Godrich, but arose from discussions within the Socialist Party, and with other trade union militants in LU and the National Shop Stewards Network. It attracted many of the best trade union militants and infuriated the leadership of the TUC. But that was nearly seven years ago, in January 2012. In her election address, Janice boasts that PCS is “respected throughout the TUC”, which raises the question: would she call such a meeting now to put pressure on the TUC union leadership?
Undermining lay democracy
Despite the outrage expressed at the concerns we raised about the undermining of the democratic traditions of PCS, the SV reply repeatedly confirms this danger. The authors assert that Mark Serwotka has not handed Chris’s duties to unelected officers but has, instead, “allocated responsibilities between him and Chris as elected SFTOs, based on the functional needs of the union and changes in the management”. As if any general secretary’s right to allocate responsibilities should operate unchecked, without any reference to the NEC, particularly when – as Mark Serwotka freely admitted to us, and is not denied by the SV authors – that has involved the systematic removal of the duties of the only other elected senior full-time officer. It is clear to any disinterested observer that there have been attempts to side-line Chris.
We found it inexplicable that this took place. After all Mark managed to collaborate with the previous deputy general secretary, Hugh Lanning, who was not part of the left and who Mark had denounced in the past claiming there was no difference between Lanning and the former right-wing general secretary, Barry Reamsbottom. The only justification given is Chris’s supposed bad behaviour. As we wrote in Socialism Today: “Even if this accusation was true, which we have refuted verbally and in writing, the response of an elected general secretary to serious conflict with the only other elected official in the union 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.”
In fact, the only concrete example given of Chris’s allegedly “shocking behaviour”, which is supposed to justify the decision to stand against him, is the claim that, “while Mark was undergoing heart surgery, Chris drove an argument about adequate full-time support for one PCS Group”. The SV authors go on to claim that Chris, “worked with a few allies at an NEC meeting to push for Mark’s responsibilities for the allocation of PCS staff to be removed”. This Alice in Wonderland version of reality reveals a great deal.
At no time did Chris push for Mark’s responsibility over allocation of PCS staff to be removed. What was raised, mainly before Mark’s surgery while he was in hospital awaiting a transplant, were the complaints of not one but at least seven lay group presidents who wanted to ask for the changes in staffing for their groups to be reconsidered. The SV authors claim: “Janice and her supporters in the SP, and in the LU caucus, argued that to take advantage of Mark’s illness…’was an act of political insanity’.” It is true that Janice and others effectively opposed any attempts to discuss the staffing changes on these grounds. Yet how is it ‘taking advantage of Mark’s illness’ to want to discuss staffing changes?
Are the authors suggesting that the group presidents concerned had no right to raise concerns about staffing changes? Are they saying that the general secretary’s word is law and cannot be questioned? Or that the union had to unquestioningly accept all decisions carried out over months by unelected FTOs in Mark’s name, because to do otherwise would be ‘taking advantage of Mark’s illness’? Does Candy Unwin – a member of the SWP which has now backed Janice in an unprincipled fashion – agree with the SV authors? She was an activist in Museums and Culture, one of the groups concerned, and was involved in campaigning for these staffing changes to be reviewed.
It is also noticeable that the authors seem to be complaining not about what was raised in the formal structures of PCS, but within the Socialist Party and LU caucuses. This misunderstands the role of Socialist Party caucuses within the union. Meetings of the Socialist Party’s PCS caucus executive and of the caucus as a whole take place regularly to allow thorough discussion on the many tactical issues which arise in the course of building PCS. Socialist Party members have to feel free in these meetings to discuss out different options and test ideas, before reaching a democratic decision on the way forward which members then abide by.
A similar approach should then take place within LU, with open and democratic discussion between the different individuals and left organisations before a decision is reached. In this way LU – as a democratic, fighting trade union broad left – can play a crucial role in giving a voice to all PCS militants, which can then enable it to hold the union leadership to account. To suggest that vital issues relating to staffing should not be discussed either within the Socialist Party or LU is indeed part of a dangerous trend towards undermining lay democracy. Even the most left-wing and formally democratic organisation will degenerate if there is an atmosphere in which it is impermissible to discuss and, where necessary, criticise the actions of the leadership.
The SV authors express horror that the Socialist Party considered it an infringement of lay democracy for Mark’s responsibilities to be passed to unelected FTOs while he was ill, rather than to Chris Baugh who, as the only other elected FTO, should have been made acting general secretary. Yet how else can you interpret Fran and Kevin’s assertion that Chris was acting outrageously because he was raising issues on staffing, “when Mark was in hospital and unable to be present in open and honest discussions”? What this means is that Mark was not dealing with staffing because he was too ill, but changes were being made to staffing arrangements, which no one – including the most senior elected official then working – was allowed to criticise because Mark wasn’t there! This was a Kafkaesque situation.
Given the sensitivity of the situation we agreed there was nothing we could do about the undemocratic way Mark’s responsibilities were being transferred while he was ill. This was posed most acutely when Chris received notification, of which Janice had previously been informed, while Mark was undergoing surgery. This was from Dave Watson, an unelected official who is head of the GS’s office. It delegated matters concerning the employment/deployment of staff to Jeff Evans, the unelected officer originally appointed under the old right-wing leadership, and matters concerning the servicing of the National Disputes Committee and the Weekly Deployment Committee to Paul O’Connor, another unelected officer. But, while we reluctantly agreed we could not challenge that situation, we were not prepared to accept the argument that lay reps had no right to raise questions on staffing changes or any other issue that arose.
Given the growing tendency for power in the PCS to be concentrated in the hands of unelected officials acting in the name of Mark Serwotka, we believe it is urgent to implement PCS conference policy for the extension of the election of FTOs, which has been constantly delayed. We note that no reference is made to this in Fran and Kevin’s reply, or in Janice’s election address, and regrettably have to conclude that its implementation will be permanently delayed if Janice is elected AGS.
On the issue of Unite, the SV authors are completely inaccurate. It would be interesting to know what their new comrades in the SWP, who moved the motion which was passed at the 2014 PCS conference raising concerns on the democratic structures of a merged union, think of the idea that talks were conducted in a “transparent and democratic manner”. More importantly are the views of the majority of delegates at that conference who showed their concerns by voting for the motion.
That motion pointed out that, while the PCS Briefing had said “talks were at an early stage”, the Unite executive had authorised moves to formal talks and “the possible timetable reported to Unite was a special conference in July or August, and a ballot of members held in September to allow PCS to join Unite from January 2015.” No wonder delegates to the PCS conference baulked at the idea of a merger taking place just seven months later, when there were no concrete proposals from the PCS on the structure of the merged union and they were told by the motion moved by the SWP: “The Unite executive had received a report that no significant revision of Unite’s rules would be required and that the transfer of engagements will be on the basis of their existing rule book.”
While Chris Baugh may have formally been a member of a broader NEC committee on the Unite merger, he was excluded from all but one of the merger negotiating meetings that took place. Not only was he not told about the timetable for a January 2015 merger, when he found a piece of paper which appeared to suggest such a timetable, Janice Godrich and her supporters denied any such timetable existed. They reacted with fury when Chris warned in Socialist Party caucuses that any attempt to rush the merger through without thorough discussion on the democratic structures would be a serious mistake.
Chris raised these issues consistently over years. He wrote a paper for the Socialist Party PCS caucus in September 2012 which made the case for merger but clearly outlined the basis on which it should take place. Among the minimum proposals he put forward were an annual conference, the establishment of a public sector group, annual elections for all lay positions including president, and the election of all officers who have a major representational role. Unfortunately, as Chris feared at the time, Janice Godrich and John McInally, who were part of the negotiations with Unite, only paid lip service to these proposals. As a consequence, there were no discussions within LU on the progress of talks with Unite and very little by way of reports to the NEC.
The Socialist Party is not afraid to oppose mergers, even if we are in a small minority in doing so. In general, mergers can be positive in strengthening the fighting capacity of the workers’ movement, but this is not automatically true. For example, we argued against the merger of the NUT and the ATL because of the basis on which it took place. While the merger was popular among a majority of NUT activists, who rightly saw how a merged union could increase their strength in the classrooms, we warned that it was being done on the basis of some of the worst aspects of the ATL constitution – for example, the rulebook including always having a consultative ballot before balloting for action regardless of circumstance.
In the case of Unite and PCS we saw the potential for it to strengthen both unions and to act as a major pole of attraction for all trade unionists who wanted to see a serious fightback against austerity. We were therefore in favour of the merger in principle – providing it was done on an open, democratic basis. Unfortunately, as we explained in our Socialism Today article this was not the approach of Mark Serwotka, supported by Janice Godrich, who attempted to rush the merger through exactly with, as we said, “a large element of expediency” in a mistaken response to the difficulties which we recognise the union faced as a result of the hammer blows of the government’s attacks.
The SV authors accuse us of lying when we said that “arguments for affiliation [to Labour] will be put” in the new consultation on political representation that was agreed at this year’s PCS conference. We never suggested that the consultation would call for affiliation. This is clearly unlikely given the response to the last, 2016, consultation which raised affiliation as one option. Mark was sympathetic to looking seriously at that, arguing in a Policy and Resources Committee paper (published on 5 October 2015), “I’ve been approached by a number of people inside & outside PCS on the question of affiliation to LP… I do believe that we have a duty to consider this question.” However, “responses did not support” it.
It is absolutely clear that a difference exists between us and Mark Serwotka on political representation. As we have explained previously, this was the case in the pre-Corbyn era. We argued that the PCS should have acted on its excellent 2012 vote “to stand or support candidates in national elections that would help to defend members’ jobs, pay, pensions and public services”. At a time when the RMT, FBU and leading figures in the POA were all taking initial steps towards standing candidates in elections, the PCS could have helped to accelerate and deepen that process.
However, the differences have, if anything, been posed more sharply in the Corbyn era. They have centred precisely on how a union fights for its members’ interests on the political field. Unfortunately, in our view, Mark has tended to limit his position to supporting Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum, the organisation originally set up to support him, and has not campaigned for PCS to play an independent role in fighting to transform the Labour Party – as we have argued for. Criticising Blairites in general is not the same as actively fighting for a programme to get them out of the Labour Party.
One example of this was the 2016 PCS conference where Mark’s support for the PCS to affiliate to Momentum was so strong that he argued for it on the platform of a conference fringe meeting, in opposition to the position of the NEC. We opposed affiliation to Momentum because of its undemocratic structure and its leadership’s tendency to try and conciliate with the Blairites.
The issue of Momentum is ignored by the SV authors, but their comments on the far more important issue of the Labour Party are shocking. They write that, “the Socialist Party argues for Labour to be transformed into a ‘workers’ party’. But the PCS is not the Socialist Party”, adding: “PCS policy as agreed at our annual conference is that it is in our members’ interests to do what we can to get a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government elected”. This shows a complete lack of understanding of what we mean when we call for Labour to be transformed into a workers’ party. We argue for it precisely because it is in the interests of PCS members and the working class as a whole.
It is becoming ever clearer that, as we have warned, the pro-capitalist wing of the Labour Party is prepared to do whatever it can to sabotage a Corbyn-led government, either by preventing it being elected or stopping it implementing radical policies. Therefore, the workers’ movement urgently needs to fight for the democratisation of the Labour Party and the deselection of the capitalist saboteurs in order to aid the struggle to advance workers’ “interests over pay, jobs, pensions and public services”.
Of course, the Socialist Party fully understands that many PCS members may not be convinced of this and that it is for the democratic structures of the PCS to decide their policies. We think it is important, however, that these arguments are put to them. The points we raised in our Socialism Today article were not about any attempt to impose our policies on PCS members. They were an explanation of how Socialist Party members on the PCS NEC fought to try and ensure that the 2016 consultation on political representation at least included some points on the role of the Labour right – alongside welcoming Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party.
It is clear that the SV authors have not given a moment’s thought to what would happen the day after Corbyn won an election. All the forces of the capitalist class would try to sabotage a Corbyn-led government, trying to force it to ‘do a Tsipras’ and implement austerity. A militant trade union movement fighting for the implementation of a programme in workers’ interests would be vital in such a situation, but gigantic pressure would be exerted on trade union leaders to hold back from action. The SV article does not bode well for how Janice’s supporters would respond to such a situation.
In a woeful attempt to denigrate Chris’s record, the SV authors write: “Chris doesn’t take the average wage of a skilled worker”, and add that Janice has committed to do so. They and Janice turn their fire on Chris, but what demands have they made on Mark Serwotka? When Chris first stood for AGS he pledged to move to London, relocating his family at considerable expense and upheaval, in order to be based in the union HQ and be able to do his job effectively. Despite the financial demands of relocating, he pledged in his election address – with the agreement of other Socialist Party members including Janice Godrich – to repay part of his salary to union funds and make regular donations to strikes and labour movement causes in Britain and internationally. Chris has consistently met that pledge.
Role of the Socialist Party caucus
This article has made it clear that there have been differences in the leadership of the Socialist Party’s PCS caucus over a number of years. Recent events have brought into sharp relief the root of those differences: a tendency by Janice Godrich and a handful of others to be unwilling to criticise mistakes by Mark Serwotka and the PCS’s unelected officialdom, and to harshly criticise Chris Baugh for doing so. Up until now our approach has been to discuss these issues out democratically within the party caucus, and at each stage to reach agreement on a collective way forward. For a whole period we were able to operate as an effective team on that basis, even though there were occasions when the views of the majority of the Socialist Party’s PCS members were not put as sharply as they should have been, as a result of the approach of Janice and others. Undoubtedly, this led to frustration in our ranks.
While no one has an automatic right to keep a position they currently hold, we do not support their removal without serious justification. So, when Janice approached the leadership of the Socialist Party in 2016 to say she could not stand again as president for personal reasons we endeavoured to convince her to change her mind, and welcomed her decision when she did so. Janice then stood for re-election as president without mentioning her intention to stand against Chris for AGS shortly afterwards, even though it is now clear she had already discussed doing so with Mark Serwotka.
It is clear that, for Janice Godrich and her handful of supporters in the Socialist Party, including Fran Heathcote, it has become more important to give uncritical support to Mark Serwotka and the unelected officialdom of the union than it is to campaign in defence of PCS remaining a fighting and democratic union.
They have not formally resigned from the Socialist Party, but the SV article, written by one Socialist Party member and one non-member, makes clear that they no longer see themselves as part of our party. It is not accidental that at one stage they refer to the Socialist Party as “their party”, meaning Chris and his supporters. They suggest that the Socialist Party’s “end objective” of “winning the leading positions in the union for their party justifies any actions, no matter how dishonest those means may be”.
Let us be clear, if all we were interested in was accumulating positions, we would have done what Janice Godrich argued for and agreed to Mark Serwotka’s proposal to order Chris to stand down and to back her for AGS. However, had the leadership of the Socialist Party made such a proposal, it would have rightly been met by a revolt of our members both outside and particularly inside the PCS. This is because they understood that this was a question of standing firm not only against the unjustified ditching of an effective and hardworking AGS, but also against a trend towards the concentration of power in the officialdom in PCS at the expense of lay control.