The leadership of the civil service union PCS, the NEC [National Executive Committee] has decided that in the looming general election the union should call on members in England and Wales to vote Labour, on the grounds that a Labour government under the leadership and policies of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell is in the interests of PCS members.
In a different tack worthy of separate membership discussion, the NEC has also decided that in Scotland it should instead urge members “to vote to Get the Tories Out” while emphasising the necessity of a Corbyn-led UK government.
The decision to endorse Labour in England and Wales has been condemned by the Socialist Party and their members in PCS: ”Supporting candidates just because they are Labour is going to lead to division among our members and political incoherence... ”
However, the SP claims to support the election of a Corbyn led Labour government. That claim is not compatible with its condemnation of the union supporting Labour candidates “just because they are Labour”.
Wanting a Corbyn-led Government entails campaigning for the election of Labour candidates and wanting them to win in sufficient numbers to command an overall majority in the House of Commons, 326 seats out of the 650 seats available.
In 2017 the Labour Party won 262 seats. To scrape even a bare majority in the next election, Corbyn needs those 262 seats and another 64. The SP’s implied suggestion that this could happen if PCS (and, logically, other unions?) follow its advice and refuse to call for a vote for Labour across the board is ridiculous.
The Socialist Party and its members in the PCS, first and foremost their NEC members and its PCS General Secretary candidate, Marion Lloyd, have the same choice as the rest of us: either mobilise people to vote Labour or be neutral as to the electoral outcome of swathes of seats and therefore indifferent to the election of a Corbyn led Labour government.
The SP activists in PCS are effectively advocating neutrality, albeit out of the side of their mouth and while sounding very “Left”. They oppose PCS nationally calling for a vote for Labour in England and Wales and at the same time they demand “rigorous scrutiny” of the record of any Labour Party candidates that local PCS branches might want to endorse.
But this latter demand would require the national leadership to refuse endorsement to all those Labour candidates who fail the “scrutiny” demanded by the SP, i.e. the SP NEC members want the PCS leadership to refuse endorsement to the very many sitting Labour MPs whose woeful political and parliamentary records are well known (even without “rigorous”
scrutiny) and those prospective Labour candidates who may be found, for example, to have voted for cuts on Labour-run councils. It is a policy for neutrality in constituencies which Labour has to win if there is to be a Corbyn Labour government.
The SP panders to the prejudices of those PCS members who would prefer PCS to abstain from politics – from electoral politics, from the parliamentary struggle, from the idea that workers, and therefore their trade unions, have an inherent, vital, inescapable interest in which political forces constitute the Government of the day and the class interests they represent.
The policies they will implement, the effect that one outcome as opposed to another will have on workers confidence and ability to enter into struggle.
The SP complains that “[PCS’s political] independence has been cast away in favour of wholesale endorsement of Labour in England and Wales, which has been done without levying a single demand or a single condition on any of the hundreds of parliamentary candidates we will now potentially be supporting.”
It is an appalling argument for would be Marxists to make:
The issue is not “political independence of PCS”, but whether the labour movement should fight to replace Johnson with a Labour Government.
Many Labour MPs are not worthy of PCS’s confidence. Just as lots of trade union officials across the movement are unworthy of members’ confidence. The left within PCS should not say otherwise.
But, with all due warnings about right-wing candidates (and the political weaknesses of Jeremy Corbyn himself), replacing Johnson with Corbyn in Downing Street is worthy of PCS support, potentially taking the labour movement’s struggle onto more advantageous terrain and taking labour movement debate onto a higher level, including a clearer focus on the insufficiency of the Corbyn programme for government.
The union leadership, in which the SP was central until 18 months ago, has had plenty of time to place demands on the Corbyn leadership. It has not done so and the SP has not sought to ensure it did so. The SP’s complaint now is an afterthought, a backup argument for political neutrality in constituencies Labour must win.
But the SP is not seriously interested in demands on Labour candidates: it wants “rigorous scrutiny” of individual candidate’s records in order to reject advocating a vote for many of them.
In 2016 the SP and others (including key figures now supporting PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka) successfully opposed an Annual Conference motion calling for PCS to affiliate to Momentum, i.e. they opposed a motion calling for PCS to throw its weight in a limited way into the conflict within the Labour Party and on the side of those supporting Corbyn against the very right-wing MPs that the SP now cite as a reason for opposing a call to vote Labour.
However, the PCS leadership could still seek to pursue active demands with Corbyn and McDonnell – along the lines advocated by the PCS Independent Left, including AWL activists, for civil service pay – rather than passively rest content with the limited commitments Corbyn has made to the union.
The SP is constructing a myth of “political independence” which can only undermine the fight of Marxists and militants to render our trade unions better “fit for purpose.”
Members and activists who takes the SP’s call for trade union political independence seriously will either end up in the sectarian dead-end now occupied by the SP or be vulnerable to demagogic, reactionary, propaganda from the media and right wing trade unionists who will argue that Marxists are an organised force which seeks to politically dominate unions and against their members’ interests.
The irony in all of this is that the SP is letting current PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka and his allies off the genuine challenges they should be subjected to, not least their dreadful and unexplained error in opposing calls to for the national union to recommend a vote for Labour in the critical 2017 General election.
Serwotka and his friends say today that the PCS leadership’s 2017 approach of not issuing a national Vote Labour call but instead allowing local branches only to apply for permission to endorse local Labour candidates in an exceptionally tight timescale “is now not enough”. Truth be told it was not enough in 2017. It was an abdication of leadership.
Forgetting their 2017 abdication, Serwotka and his friends now seek to use support for Labour as a factional weapon against the SP (which almost invites such action with its stupid sectarianism), to isolate the SP, making support for a Labour vote a litmus test of loyalty to themselves.
In the forthcoming PCS General Secretary election only one candidate, Bev Laidlaw, and one faction, the PCS Independent Left, has consistently called upon the Union to recommend a vote for Labour to members.
Serious socialists in PCS should vote for Bev.