PCS Independent Left wins against “status quo” left

Submitted by AWL on 15 May, 2019 - 7:45
pcs demo

On Thursday 9 May, the PCS civil service union announced that Independent Left candidate John Moloney had won the election for Assistant General Secretary. John Moloney spoke to Solidarity.

I believe that standing on a worker’s wage, rather than taking the on-offer wage of £91k, was of decisive weight in the outcome. Certainly many people said it was the reason why they voted for me. Another thing that helped is that most of the voting took place during the strike ballot for pay, so reps were already taking to members. This might account for turnout increasing from 8% to over 10% this time — though of course that is still poor.

The other two candidates — Chris Baugh, who was the incumbent, and Lynn Henderson, favoured by General Secretary Mark Serwotka — got more branch nominations than me. Despite that, they got a lower vote. There was a lot of infighting between the supporters of Chris and Lynn, and it could be that people nominated a candidate through their branch but weren’t motivated to campaign for them amongst the membership.

The branches supporting the Independent Left, by contrast, were all very positive. Some branches supporting Left Unity do deliver high turnouts in strike ballots, so they do have the capacity to reach out to the membership, but in this campaign they didn’t work the membership as we did in our branches. In any case, either the “safe pair of hands” message of the two other candidates didn’t resonate, or the activists supporting it couldn’t get their vote out, whereas in our branches our “unsafe pair of hands” message did mobilise people.

The National Executive election results, announced on 10 May, give us three Independent Left comrades on the NEC. It would have been four if I hadn’t been elected AGS. Despite that advance, though, on paper Left Unity still have a clear majority as before. The Independent Left vote is now significantly closer to the Left Unity vote. Gradually, over time, our relative vote has gone up each year, and it went up more this year. This coupled with the continuing fallout within Left Unity may lead to re-alignments on the left later this year.

At the union conference on 21-23 May the big issue will be the union’s response to our failure to get a 50% turnout on the pay ballot. The leadership wants to go for a third ballot. I agree that this is needed but I think we first must have a fundamental rethink about how we structure and organise ourselves, and how we campaign.

The union has introduced new technologies for campaigning, like mass phone-banking, and the app which gives branch activists an electronic list of their members and enables them to check off who’s voted. Those are effective, and certainly must be part of any future campaigning. But the pay campaign didn’t grip people as it could have done given the erosion of our members’ standards of living. We have to ask why the genuine anger of members about that erosion was not translated into votes, and why we didn’t get, not just 50.1%, but a 60% or 70% turnout.

In terms of organising, I take my inspiration from the Chicago teachers. It took them several years to build up their organisation. We don’t have several years, but I don’t see how we can bypass the sort of hard work on the ground that the Chicago teachers did. Now the Chicago teachers rebuilt partly through local community campaigns. With us, mostly, the links are more overtly about general politics rather than community-oriented. So work on more general politics, such as climate change, can help us rebuild the union as well as an emphasis on fairness, equality, and justice in the workplace. Campaigns around local office closures and around benefit rights and Universal Credit though will also be important.

In some areas, PCS has developed young activists. In others, it hasn’t. Clearly it is vital that across the union we recruit young members and develop them into activists. We should also work to mobilise BAME members, members with disabilities, trans members, around messages of fairness, equality, and justice in the workplace.

I don’t know what functions I’ll be allocated as Assistant General Secretary. The union constitution says that I’m union treasurer, and a member of the National Disputes Committee and NEC, but beyond that it is silent. If I get the chance, I would love to have a major role in organising and campaigning. Union support for local disputes will help us organise. There’s a Universal Credit dispute which should be boosted by the union, and the cleaners’ dispute. Start doing things, and see what happens!

Whilst there is always a danger that winning positions such as AGS, particularly when at first you find yourself relatively isolated at union HQ, you can be lead astray I don’t think that will happen to me. I’m grounded in a rank-and-file organisation and happy to be so. I don’t think I’m a superstar. I recognise that I’m part of a collective.

A quick test of that will be my wages. I am asking only to be paid as an EO on the DWP London pay minimum. This is the closest thing to a worker’s wage (EO is the most common grade in the civil service, DWP is the biggest part of the union, and I work in London). It is more likely that I will be paid the full AGS rate of £91,000. If this happens, then I will take home the net EO pay and donate the rest to our fighting fund, where it will appear in the annual accounts. Of course paying me £91k will mean that the union will have to pay unnecessary taxes and NI. Better to pay me the EO wage!

The Independent Left is a small group of about 100 activists, which has been faced with a larger organisation called Left Unity, which probably has a 1,000 members. As said earlier, Left Unity is clearly in a state of flux around the AGS election.

They first rejected the incumbent, Chris Baugh, as their candidate, and then selected him after a second vote. So there may be realignments, and new alliances may be forged. But IL must keep on with its fundamental programme to change the union, rather than transform itself into an electoral machine.

There may be some place for horse-trading in a realignment, but it must not dominate. We’re hoping that if we can demonstrate that we are different, then it will be possible to draw new people into the Independent Left. And if we can grow the union again, then we will have fertile ground to grow the left further and on a better basis.

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