Marion Lloyd, PCS national executive committee (personal capacity)
For nearly 20 years PCS Left Unity has been the dominant political force in the civil servants’ union and Socialist Party members have played a major role.
More recently, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka has increasingly concentrated power in his hands with support in the union’s full-time officialdom and from elements within Left Unity.
The tensions this process has created within Left Unity became apparent in the lead up to the PCS national conference which took place in Brighton 19-23 May.
Immediately preceding the conference, despite a huge effort, PCS unfortunately failed to achieve the 50% threshold for the second year running to win a statutory ballot for strike action on pay, with a 47.7% turnout. This followed sharp differences within Left Unity over the tactics that were required to win the ballot.
Again taking place just before the conference was the election for assistant general secretary. Socialist Party member Chris Baugh, the incumbent and official Left Unity candidate, was narrowly defeated by Independent Left candidate John Moloney. A situation brought about by Mark Serwotka and his supporters splitting the Left Unity vote by backing a non-Left Unity full-time national officer.
This election brought to the surface differences in Left Unity: over the top-down control exercised by the union officialdom against the assertion of control by the lay structures.
Immediately before the conference, Serwotka told departmental groups the new assistant general secretary should speak at their conferences. The groups refused to replace Chris Baugh as their speaker. This show of defiance led to a climb down by Serwotka, claiming his instructions had been misinterpreted. When asked to publish all relevant correspondence to the national executive committee Serwotka refused to do so.
Conference opened with a pay debate which noted the failure to secure the statutory threshold. The executive committee’s motion endorsed the approach and tactics pursued in 2019 and committed to a further ballot on the same basis at an appropriate time later in the year. Opposing this was a motion by Chris4AGS supporters.
This argued for a comprehensive, open-ended analysis of the 2019 ballot and for wide consultation on the tactics for 2020.
Although the motion was carried on a card vote (For 62,676, Against 60,991 and 5,686 abstentions) the closeness of the vote reflected the divisions in the left – the leadership struggled to find supporters to speak from the floor.
In a further debate, conference overturned the leadership in carrying a censure motion. This was over the executive committee’s handling of Mark Serwotka’s signature to a letter in the Morning Star about the Gender Recognition Act. The letter was described by the Guardian as an attack on transgender activists and felt by many to be contrary to union policy.
A well-attended Socialist Party meeting heard from Chris Baugh and Socialist Party deputy general secretary Hannah Sell on: ‘Where now for PCS as a fighting union?’ The financial appeal raised £700. There was agreement around steps to be taken to reclaim Left Unity as a fighting, democratic, inclusive rank-and-file organisation.
Left Unity retreat
How far the Left Unity retreat from its founding principles has gone was brought home when delegates, on their way to the Left Unity rally, were handed leaflets by prominent Left Unity national committee members announcing Mark Serwotka’s re-election campaign.
The Socialist Workers Party, who were first in the line of those handing out leaflets, had no answer to the question: “What democratic process did this go through?”
Serwotka, astonishingly given his backing for a non-Left Unity candidate in the assistant general secretary campaign, spoke at the rally and made clear that the pre-emptive announcement of his candidature was exactly that.
The Left Unity national committee members handing out the Serwotka leaflet are obviously expecting some sort of coronation but this will not be acceptable to most activists who will demand a democratic election process to determine who will be the Left Unity candidate.
The 2019 PCS conference will be seen as a defining conference where activists sought to challenge the control exercised by the union officialdom and its echoes in the lay structures.
The push back against these developments was evidenced in the standing ovations given to Chris Baugh at the conference, the near defeat of the platform on pay, the censure on the Gender Recognition Act and the angry reaction to Serwotka’s contemptuous announcement of his candidature for re-election over the heads of the activists.