The civil service union, PCS, met in Brighton last week from 24-26th May. The conference was dominated by discussions on what the union’s political stance should be given the transformation caused by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. Socialist Appeal supporters in PCS believe the union should affiliate to the Labour Party in order to defend Corbyn and fight for socialism.
The civil service union, PCS, met in Brighton last week from 24-26th May. The conference was dominated by discussions on what the union’s political stance should be given the transformation caused by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.
Both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, addressed the conference and received standing ovations. Corbyn and McDonnell both promised to restore national pay bargaining for the civil service, oppose all cuts, and repeal the recently passed Trade Union Bill that further limits trade union rights. Meanwhile, the Labour leaders pledged their support to the current strikes in the Welsh Museums and in the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) department in Sheffield. All these promises are in line with PCS’s most important policies.
A motion instructing the National Executive Committee (NEC) to review the union’s attitude to party politics given Corbyn’s election was carried narrowly on a card vote. Under this motion, the NEC will also look at whether the union should affiliate to the Labour Party. The motion’s opponents were a coalition spanning a wide variety of views. There was a motion to affiliate to the Labour Party, which was placed in opposition to the motion calling for a review, and undoubtedly there would have been some delegates who would have opposed the review motion on those grounds.
Socialist Appeal supports PCS’s affiliation to the Labour Party. We believe that supporting Jeremy Corbyn and fighting for socialist policies in the Labour Party is in the best interests of PCS members and all trade unionists. This would also strengthen the forces of socialism in the Labour Party at a time when right-wing Blairite MPs are seeking to depose Corbyn. We recognise, however, that there is a campaign to be fought and won among PCS activists and members to counter the many false arguments advanced against this proposition. There is a particular issue with members in Scotland who, like much of the Scottish population, have turned their backs on the Labour Party.
At the conference, there are those on the right of the union who believe that PCS should be totally apolitical, given the long tradition of civil service “neutrality” between bourgeois political parties. There are some who, for similar reasons, think that the union can be a little political in defence of union members, but not party political, as if there is a substantive difference.
Some on the left of the union take a sectarian approach and oppose the union affiliating to Labour on the grounds that they prefer to keep the union’s politics pure and unsullied. Others on the left in the union want PCS to support their own minuscule political or electoral groupings. Members of the Socialist Party, in particular, were vehemently opposed to any link-up with the left in the Labour Party. This was especially noticeable in a debate on whether to affiliate the union to Momentum, which was defeated by around 3 to 1, with the Left Unity dominated NEC recommending opposition. This was despite the PCS General Secretary, Mark Serwotka, in a fringe meeting making clear his personal support for affiliation to Momentum. (Serwotka also said during the conference that unions should “fight for a radical Labour government”). John McDonnell was also lobbying for affiliation. But it appears that only one member of the NEC actually supported affiliation.
Left delegates, from both the Left Unity and the Independent Left factions, as well as non-aligned delegates, decided at a fringe meeting to form a PCS Momentum grouping after the conference, and Socialist Appeal will be part of this.
The conference also discussed plans to continue campaigning against government cuts to both jobs and to terms and conditions of service, such as the Civil Service Compensation Scheme, where reductions to redundancy payments are being proposed.
The conference gave a standing ovation to the Museums of Wales PCS members who are on an indefinite all-out strike against massive cuts in weekend payments. Conference also gave full support to BIS workers in Sheffield who are taking strike action against the closure by the government of the BIS Sheffield HQ Office and the movement of jobs from the “Northern Powerhouse” to London. The conference also heard from a group of members in the National Gallery in London that took strike action last year and won their dispute.
PCS itself has endured a series of attacks from the Government. Union representatives have been witch-hunted, with management trying to sack activists across the civil service, and union membership has been undermined with many civil service departments abolishing “check-off”, the system by which union members pay their subs through the payroll at source via the employer. The government are also implementing major cuts in staffing numbers and reduction in the number of offices, which has reduced the size of the civil service and thereby the size of the union. Despite these attacks, the union has survived largely unscathed and the mood of conference was as militant as in previous years.
The election results for the NEC announced prior to the conference showed that the organised right in the union has largely disappeared, and if anything there has been a move to the left by the union’s members (albeit with a low turn-out). The conference itself is one that is largely dominated by the left. PCS must turn decisively away from narrow sectarianism to become a militant union that fights for the best interests of its members, both in the short-term and in the long-term.