PCS general secretary election - time to rebuild

Updated: Mar 26

The PCS has had a proud history of being one of the UKs fastest growing trade unions and a thorn in the side of government attacks. More recently, the union has suffered from a series of attacks and setbacks. The left in the union has to face up to this reality. The left in PCS, including the current leadership under the control of incumbent General Secretary Mark Serwotka, has not been able to sufficiently respond to the employers’ offensive. The serious strategy necessary to deal with this situation has not been developed.


PCS members protesting photo CLM

As the PCS enters another round of elections – this time for the General Secretary- it is time to take stock of where the union is going and the challenges ahead. Over the past period, PCS reps and members have increasingly grown frustrated by the apparent lack of a national strategy in facing up to attacks on pay, terms and conditions. Twice we have failed to win the threshold necessary to secure the required majority in our industrial action ballots. This has left many reps and members feeling either somewhat demoralised or disoriented.

Likewise, turnouts for ballots has been falling with an apparent resignation on the part of members that industrial action cannot result in the necessary fightback. Ballot defeats can set in motion a slow spiral of declining confidence in the ability of the union to wage effective and successful action. This mood, albeit temporary, must be overcome and the General Secretary election provides an important platform for working out a change in direction and strategy which can reinstall confidence amongst our wider membership in the union.

The election of Mark Serwotka as general secretary in 2000, was correctly seen as a huge step forward in helping equip the union to face up to the challenges posed by New Labour’s attacks on the civil service and then the post-crash period from 2008 onwards. This victory was largely possible through the building and development of a Broad Left of socialists and left wingers, the PCS Left Unity, which had organised to rid the union of the right-wing control that dominated the union for years. In fact, so rabid were the old right wing that it recently emerged that they had colluded with the Thatcher government to attack and block militants and socialists from positions in the union. The overthrow of the previous regime, under Barry Reamsbottom, was a massive step forward for the union and the trade union movement in general, paving the way for the PCS to play a decisive role in the historic 2011 two million strong public sector strike over pensions.

This strike carried huge potential, not only to push back the assault on pension rights, but also to mortally wound the Con Dem Government. Due to the historic betrayal of the TUC and some right- wing union leaders, the strike wave was defeated and the Tories were able to impose worse pension conditions on the public sector workforce. The PCS and other left-led unions attempted a rear-guard resistance to the sell-out but were ultimately unsuccessful. The Con-Dem’s launched a vengeful attack on the civil service and PCS in particular for its role in driving the 2011 strike. Further cuts were proposed and at the same time, they removed the union facility to have all union dues deducted at source and paid direct into the union’s accounts which was designed to bankrupt the union.

PCS was able to wage an effective and largely successful campaign to transfer the large majority of members over to direct debits straight into the union funds, thereby staving off potential ruin. The union was also able to fight off some of the worst attacks on job cuts and office closures with direct and sometimes sustained industrial action. However, PCS was often left to fight these battles alone by the right-wing union leaders who lacked any willingness or confidence to struggle. This could have been cut across by a serious drive by the left union leaders, but this was never seriously pursued. This isolation took its toll on the fighting cohesion of PCS which in turn amplified the isolation of disputes by PCS members. The subsequent election of a majority Cameron led Tory government in 2015 signalled an intensification of attacks on members’ pay and conditions as the age of austerity started to take its toll.

When Labour selected Jeremy Corbyn as leader after the 2015 election defeat, it led to a change of strategy by Serwotka and some of his supporters who appeared to place too much faith in Corbyn being able to defeat the cuts and austerity politically. For the last 4 years, and especially since the last 2017 election, the PCS leaders have spent too much time focused on electoral victory for Corbyn rather than organising effective battles on pay, privatisation and cuts. Whilst it has been correct to support Corbyn from both within and outside the Labour Party, that should not have been at the expense of a real industrial strategy: a battle-plan to protect jobs and services coordinated across the PCS with the aim to generalise and escalate action. The struggles which have taken place have been supported with words and flags and personal visits by leading union members, but in terms of real action have been localised and uncoordinated.

As Corbyn has been increasingly hemmed in and controlled by the Blairite Parliamentary Party, leaving him weakened and sometimes ineffective, this has blunted the fighting capacity of those union leaders, unfortunately including Mark Serwotka, who appear to have hitched the fortunes and even future of their unions to the Corbyn project. This has meant members being urged to ‘wait for a Corbyn government’ rather than organising a major fightback now. There has also been a growing sense of resignation amongst public sector workers in general as the welfare state and public services have been left to slowly wither on the vine without coordinated resistance.

This has in turn led to a fracturing of the previously cohesive Left Unity, unfortunately brought about by Serwotka himself. In unjustifiably trying to marginalise and drive out Chris Baugh, the previous Assistant General Secretary, Serwotka and his allies have spilt the union’s left forces. There are now three ‘left’ groupings: Left Unity, Independent Left, and the Socialist Party and it’s ‘Broad Left Network’ which for now is still in LU. None of these are a viable mechanism for the activist base of the union to discuss the way forward and challenge the leadership, which are the fundamental roles of an effective broad left. PCSLU aimed in the past to be such a mechanism and the task facing militants in PCS now (wherever they stand in relation to this election) is to rebuild an effective broad left. This has left the PCS ill equipped to face up to the ongoing attacks on civil servants’ pay, as well as terms and conditions. This conscious and wholly unnecessary splintering has left many PCS activists disorientated. Serwotka and his close coterie of full time officials working alongside him, are almost wholly responsible for this situation.

In the absence of a serious fighting strategy, PCS Left Unity has slowly degenerated into an electoral machine in effect, focused more on the Annual Congress and frequent internal union elections. Anyone who agreed with the leadership of Left Unity were welcomed into the fold. This meant it was impossible to constructively criticise or hold the leadership to account because the Broad Left was dominated by loyalists of the leadership and careerists.

The AGS election was a victory for Serwotka in defeating a key left opponent of his, but also a partial setback as he failed to get his own candidate elected and instead saw the election of John Moloney from the PCS Independent Left. So far, Moloney has been quite an active AGS seeking to engage with the activist base of the union and taking a worker’s wage not the full AGS salary. This poses serious questions about the way forward for the union and the left within it. The General Secretary election could take this further but it will require a confident and well organised campaign to take on Mark Serwotka as it is clear that the union could continue to deteriorate and the left will continue to splinter if his leadership continues. It will send a message that the bureaucracy can be challenged from the socialist left of the union. It could also lay the basis for a viable broad left that would help PCS return to a member led, democratic fighting union that has a serious and effective approach to the industrial issues facing our members.

Unfortunately, two other candidates on the left have been nominated to challenge Mark Serwotka for General Secretary - Marion Lloyd from the Socialist Party and Bev Laidlaw from the Independent Left. Many PCS members will struggle to see major differences between these candidates and it is unfortunate that this General Secretary election is producing a split left challenge to Serwotka. This underlines the deeply divided nature of the left in the union which needs to be addressed urgently. We believe one candidate in this election would have provided the best opportunity to seriously challenge Mark Serwotka as General Secretary. Anyone serious about the possibilities this presents, in terms of rebuilding and repairing the damage that has been done over years of bureaucratic control, would be attempting to unite these two candidates into one challenge from the left. Based on the number of nominations from both candidates, we believe the candidate with the least nominations should have considered stepping aside to offer a clear run in this election. Bev Laidlaw received 17 nominations compared with Marion Lloyd who received 39. Despite utilising the union machinery, Mark Serwotka has only managed to win support from 66 branches. Activists in the branches who have nominated Laidlaw and Lloyd as well as left activists across the union more widely should begin a serious discussion about what they want from the candidates at this election and the union over the next period.

Another five years of Mark Serwotka as General Secretary of the union, if he continues on the current trajectory, will be a further setback. We urge serious and urgent discussions on the left about the best way to challenge the bureaucracy and what a serious strategy for the union looks like. This election campaign is an opportunity to once again raise the best fighting traditions of the PCS starting with a restatement that this union can and must begin a serious coordinated fightback with a worked-out strategy to win against office closures, privatisation and cuts.

PCS also needs to return to its pre-2011 position of playing a serious active role, and not merely in words, as a left lever on the wider trade union movement. This is needed on several levels: to fight Tory attacks, to mobilise mass action to force a general election, and to mobilise a mass movement to help Corbyn win that election and prepare for major struggle thereafter.

The CWU and the RMT have both proved that it is possible to win industrial action ballots by big margins and the UCU and UNITE have both used disaggregated ballots effectively to maintain the rolling momentum of potential industrial action. We cannot wait any longer for PCS to have a serious discussion among the activist base on the tactic of a coordinated disaggregated ballot. We ask all three candidates: what will you do to develop this discussion within PCS with a view to then successfully implementing it, to enable our union to take nationally joined-up action?

For this to succeed, it will require the rebuilding of our union from below with new and younger reps, delivering serious support to all the reps and branches, a dynamic fighting strategy from above, and the development of a fighting democratic Broad Left in the union which can hold the leadership to account. We ask all three candidates: how will you do these things? How will you enable our union to manage the scale of workplace meetings which the CWU did in order to pass their ballot threshold? Socialist Alternative will be part of this urgent process and will work with all genuine forces who share our analysis and wish to set about this task.

We demand:

  1. For one fighting Socialist candidate in the General Secretary Elections to lay the basis for building one viable broad left

  2. For a fighting strategy to push back the cuts to pay, privatisation and jobs. Learn the lessons of recent ballot failures by PCS and successes by other unions.

  3. A serious campaign of action to achieve one effective bargaining and organising unit to pull together all the service areas in the Civil Service.

  4. For an urgent realignment of all genuine socialist forces to democratise the union

  5. For a fighting democratic PCS retaking its rightful place at the centre of anti-Tory resistance