PCS members on strike in 2019, supported by the NSSN. Photo: Paula Mitchell
PCS members on strike in 2019, supported by the NSSN. Photo: Paula Mitchell

Leadership under pressure from members and the Broad Left Network

A Conference delegate reports

The PCS Annual Delegate Conference met in Brighton 24-26 May. A number of conference debates and decisions confirmed the move to the right of the union’s ‘Left Unity’ leadership.

Also apparent was the emergence of the Broad Left Network (BLN – the left group which the Socialist Party is part of) as the group challenging this trend.

The conference took place against a background of the cost-of-living crisis and the threat to cut 91,000 jobs in the civil service.

The ‘Left Unity’ leadership had failed to organise any pay campaign or opposition to government attacks in 2020 and 2021, and faced with an entirely predictable 2-3% limit on pay for 2022, they put off preparations for action.

Conference was presented with a choice between two alternatives on pay. General Secretary Mark Serwotka, for the national executive (NEC), argued that time was needed to prepare for a statutory strike ballot on pay, pensions and redundancy terms. He said it should start on 1 September.

Socialist Party member Dave Semple made the case for the ballot to start no later than 1 July. He pointed out that members faced the cost-of-living crisis now. An urgent response was required. The ballot should include jobs and office closures in addition to pay, etc. 

In agreeing the 1 September ballot date, the conference accepted the NEC’s argument that more time is needed to win. An argument that would have had no force if the leadership had made preparations to take on the Tory attacks.

Despite differences expressed in the debate, Socialist Party members will be tireless in our efforts to win the ballot – and in holding the leadership to account.

The BLN’s call for a collective response to Covid threats – which the leadership had failed to do – was well received. Sensing a defeat, rather than oppose the motion the executive pushed for it to be remitted and this was voted for by conference.


A motion to affiliate to the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) was submitted in response to the decision by the NEC to end PCS’s 16-year relationship with the NSSN.

From the platform, the national leadership made a disgraceful attempt to attribute to the NSSN entirely justified criticism made of the leadership by individual PCS members.

Conference delegate Katrine Williams, who is NSSN vice-chair, challenged the lie that the NSSN had ever attacked the PCS. She pointed to the key role of the NSSN, which is backed by nine national trade unions, in helping to rebuild the labour movement from the bottom up, by engaging with rank-and-file activists across unions, and the NSSN support for disputes.

The motion to reaffiliate was narrowly lost on a card vote, 35,171 votes to 39,170, showing support for the NSSN among PCS activists.

Political strategy

Differences in the debate on the union’s political strategy centred around the BLN demand that PCS should give support in elections only to candidates who support union policies. Mark Serwotka falsely claimed, in persuading conference to support the NEC, that this would prevent the union from seeking support from MPs who did not always agree with PCS.

Marion Lloyd, in her contribution, rejected this nonsense. In the successful campaign against the closure of her office in Sheffield, demands were made of all local politicians, but who the union chose to support in elections was a different matter.

Marion reminded conference that the union’s policy was ‘no to all cuts’, and said the motion sought to restore the union’s policy to its pre-Corbyn position.

Earlier in the conference, Serwotka said Labour’s move to the right under Starmer meant no reliance could be put on politicians, and the unions were now the main opposition. His criticism would have had more force had the logical conclusion been drawn that it is time to build a new workers’ party. 

The test for the union and its leadership in the months ahead will come on the issues of immediate and direct interest to members: pay, jobs, office closures, and perhaps also Covid. These are the issues on which Socialist Party members and BLN supporters will demand action from the executive. This leadership resorts to consultative exercises rather than face up to its responsibility to lead. Well it’s time to fight back, and this cannot be put off any longer.