Should the Socialist still be produced during the Corona crisis?

The Socialist newspaper

The Socialist newspaper   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Debate with Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil servants’ union

On 7 April Mark Serwotka wrote to Hannah Sell, general secretary of the Socialist Party, asking for an assurance that the Socialist would not be sold outside PCS-organised workplaces during the coronavirus emergency.

Hannah Sell replied, emphasising how seriously the Socialist Party takes complying with social-distancing measures. She also raised points about the important role of the Socialist during the crisis and the need for the workers’ movement to continue to organise independently in defence of workers’ interests.

We are publishing the correspondence, as it raises important issues for the whole workers’ movement.

As has been reported in the Socialist, more than five million workers are still in the workplace. They are often facing dangerous working conditions, including in the civil service.

More and more workers have had to get organised to fight for proper PPE and social-distancing measures. At the same time, millions have been laid off or suffered income cuts.

The trade unions must not rely on the Tory government or big business – whose priority is defence of the capitalist system – to defend the health and well-being of the working-class majority.

The Socialist, in our Workers’ Charter (see ‘Coronavirus: A Workers’ Charter’ at, and elsewhere, has consistently outlined a programme which, if it was taken up by the trade union leaders, would lay the basis for an effective struggle in workers’ interests.

The Socialist also carries reports from those struggles which are taking place, often written by the workers’ who are leading them. It is vital we continue to do so. If you agree, please contribute to our special coronavirus appeal.

7 April 2020

Dear Ms Sell

I have been contacted by PCS reps in Jubilee House in Stratford, London, a DWP and HMRC workplace, to express their dismay that on 31 March, in the midst of the coronavirus emergency, your organisation set up a stall by the entrance to the building and your members sold the Socialist newspaper and distributed leaflets to staff by hand.

The matter has been discussed by the PCS Senior Officers Committee. It was agreed that the Socialist Party’s dangerous disregard for our members and their families’ health and safety is disgraceful and unacceptable. It has not only increased the risk posed by the virus to PCS members at this terrible, tragic time, but also potentially exacerbated the pressure on NHS staff.

Setting up a stall, paper selling and leafleting are extremely hazardous contraventions of the government’s guidelines on social distancing and restricting activity outside the home to essential matters in order to suppress the transmission of the virus. PCS is highly critical of the inadequate way the government has dealt with this crisis and of the measures taken by the Civil Service as an employer to safeguard its staff. We are engaged in hard negotiations with the Cabinet Office on a daily basis to try to ensure protection for our members. Nevertheless, the government’s guidelines must be followed as the least that can be done to safeguard our communities. It’s not enough, but it will save lives in this situation. Whatever your organisation’s political stance towards the government, it is utterly irresponsible that your members should flaunt those guidelines.

On behalf of the PCS Senior Officers Committee and the PCS reps in Jubilee House, I am writing to demand that you provide an assurance that this behaviour will not be repeated.

Yours sincerely, Mark Serwotka

9 April 2020

Dear Mark,

I am writing in response to your letter of 7 April 2020 which complains about a Socialist Party stall outside Jubilee House, Stratford, London, a DWP and HMRC workplace, which took place on Monday 30 March, 2020. The letter also raises broader points about the role of labour and trade union activists during these difficult times.

The Socialist Party takes the health and safety of all workers very seriously, and the stall you refer to strictly complied with the government’s social-distancing guidelines, as do all Socialist Party actions. As you know, the government’s guidelines allow the buying and selling of newspapers.

The Socialist Party stall outside Jubilee House, Stratford, east London on 30 March 2020. It clearly shows the table at some distance from the office entrance opposite

The Socialist Party stall outside Jubilee House, Stratford, east London on 30 March 2020. It clearly shows the table at some distance from the office entrance opposite   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Copies of the Socialist newspaper and of our Coronavirus Workers’ Charter were placed on a table which was more than two metres from both the entrance to the workplace and the Socialist Party members present. This meant that workers were free to go into work and, if they chose, take Socialist Party material, while maintaining social distancing at all times.

The Socialist Party members present also wore protective gloves. Those taking material were no more endangered than people buying newspapers from those newsagents, kiosks and shops that are properly carrying out social-distancing measures.

It is also pertinent that both the Jubilee House security staff, and police officers who were questioning travellers entering the nearby Stratford interchange station, witnessed the stall, and made no complaint whatsoever. More importantly, it received a friendly response from Jubilee House workers, with no complaints made at the time. If, however, PCS reps had concerns we are of course very happy to discuss those with them.

But your complaint seems to be of a broader character than just the issue of compliance with social-distancing measures. The Socialist, unlike the capitalist press, plays an important role in aiding workers who are fighting to defend themselves during this difficult time. The issue available at the stall you refer to included reports on the RMT’s fight for safety for tube workers, plus reports of hospital cleaners, supermarket workers, care workers and food distribution workers, all fighting for improved health and safety.

These reports of workers on the frontline fighting back, which are not generally found in the pages of the capitalist press, would have been of interest to civil servants, who told us they were facing unsafe conditions. We hope that you are not suggesting that the socialist press should face greater restrictions than those placed on media that do not have the interests of workers at their heart.

This links to a wider point about the role of the workers’ movement during the pandemic. You rightly point to the “inadequate way the government has dealt with this crisis”. One consequence of this, is that millions of workers, including 29% of civil servants, are continuing to have to travel outside of their homes to work, often facing unsafe conditions when they arrive. In our view, the workers’ movement has a vital role to play in fighting to ensure workers’ safety, including organising walkouts when necessary.

But we do not draw the conclusion from this, as you put it in your recent video message on PCS discussions with the government, that trade unions should “park” their members’ demands until the corona crisis is over. Such an approach is predicated on the mistaken assumption that the government is acting in the interests of society as a whole during this time of crisis.

As PCS members know all too well, successive Tory governments have systematically attacked the pay and conditions of civil servants and other workers. The leopard has not now – because we are in a crisis – changed its spots. The Tories continue to act in the best interests of the capitalist elite.

The workers’ movement therefore needs to organise independently to fight for the interests of the working class – not least on the crucial issues of health and safety, and testing. This is essential in order to minimise the tragic loss of workers’ lives during this crisis, which is not the Tory government’s priority. If it was, it would be providing 100% pay for all workers, taking adequate measures to ensure the safety of workers in government offices, nationalising the pharmaceutical industry in order to harness its power to fight the virus, and countless other measures that are included in our Workers’ Charter.

If you would like to discuss these issues further we are happy to do so. In the meantime, we assure you that we will continue to take the health and safety of all workers extremely seriously, including adherence to social-distancing measures and that, wherever workers are fighting on these or other issues, we will be actively supporting them.

Yours in solidarity, Hannah Sell

16 April 2020

Dear Ms Sell,

I wrote to you on 7 April to express serious concerns that had been raised by PCS reps in Jubilee House in Stratford about your members’ unacceptable actions in setting up a stall with literature outside their building in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak and lockdown. I am astonished that your reply of 9 April simply dismisses those concerns and fails to address our demand that you do not repeat such activities.

Your letter indicates that you have fundamentally misunderstood the guidelines in place for mitigating the spread of the virus and keeping people safe. Your statement that “the government’s guidelines allow the buying and selling of newspapers” could be regarded as ridiculous if this were not such a serious demonstration of your failure to understand the basis of our reps’ concerns.

Your members’ presence outside the building and their interaction with staff was unnecessary. It increased the risk to those staff of catching the virus. The government’s guidelines are that people, including your members, should stay at home. As I said in my previous letter, whilst PCS is highly critical of the government’s response to the crisis, following these simple rules will mean that fewer people will contract Covid-19 and fewer people will die than if they are not followed. You seem to have misunderstood this basic point or you have chosen to ignore it.

I will not respond to your statements about the union’s campaigns and our demands concerning civil servants’ pay and conditions. These are matters for our union, not an external organisation such as yours, and are determined through our democratic processes. Your comments are irrelevant to the question of our members’ safety.

You have not responded to our demand that you do not repeat these unsafe activities that are increasing the risk to PCS members posed by the virus. PCS reps in Jubilee House have expressed serious concerns to us and it is a matter of the utmost importance that you do not engage in such actions again.

Yours sincerely, Mark Serwotka

21 April 2020

Dear Mark,

We have received your latest letter (16 April) regarding your complaint about a Socialist Party stall outside Jubilee House, Stratford, London, a DWP and HMRC workplace, which took place on Monday 30 March, 2020. We are not sure what more we can add to our original response.

As we explained, far from “simply dismissing” workers’ concerns that social distancing guidelines are adhered to, all Socialist Party actions, including the stall that you refer to, strictly comply with them. We also stated that if, however, PCS reps still “had concerns we are of course very happy to discuss those with them”.

We made the point to you that “the government’s guidelines allow the buying and selling of newspapers”. This applies equally to sellers of socialist newspapers as it does to vendors of other, capitalist publications – provided that social-distancing protocols are properly carried out. But the fact that you dismiss this can only lead to the unfortunate conclusion that you do, indeed, believe that the working-class, socialist press should face greater restrictions than those placed “on media that do not have the interests of workers at their heart”.

And if that is so for the workers’ press, then what are the implications for workers’ independent organisation generally, including the ability of PCS members and reps to organise on behalf of their fellow workers? Should they too face greater restrictions on their activity than the employers? Obviously not, in our opinion.

Clearly, there are profoundly different views between us on these vital questions of how the labour and trade union movement should operate in these extremely challenging times, which it is in the interests of the movement to discuss out.

Consequently, we believe it would be useful for the movement for us to publish this correspondence on our website and in the pages of The Socialist.

Yours in solidarity, Hannah Sell