With the upcoming elections for PCS General Secretary, Socialist Appeal spoke at length with current left-wing General Secretary Mark Serwotka about the issues facing the union and its decision to support the Labour Party in a General Election.
At the Labour4Clause4 meeting at this year’s Labour Party conference in Brighton, one of the most passionate speeches came from Mark Sewotka, the left-wing general secretary of the public sector union PCS. Socialist Appeal took the opportunity to speak with Mark at length about the critical issues facing the union and PCS members as a whole.
Socialist Appeal: First of all, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Can I start by asking you about PCS, a union that has become one of the most left-wing in the British labour movement?
Mark: Obviously PCS today could not be more different to the then-CPSA union that I joined when I was sixteen. The CPSA then was run by a clearly right-wing leadership. They not only collaborated with the management. They clearly had as their agenda the suppression of any activity inside the union. They behaved in such an outrageous way that I was pleased to find and get involved in what was a very active left-wing movement.
I joined the CPSA broad left very quickly upon becoming active in the union. It was a very vibrant movement based on the fact that people needed to come together to challenge the way the union was then being run. It was that period of being an activist, working under difficult circumstances, that gave us the grounding in what was required to have an effective union: basically you need an active union in the workplace, to be politically very bold, and to be able to convince and win over the members.
I think that laid the foundations so that when the unions merged to form the PCS, I was able to stand with some credibility as a left candidate, based on my period as an activist having led many, many strikes. Some of the longest strikes in our union’s history had been led by me and my branch in South Wales and it was really what we had gone through that made very clear to us what sort of union was needed. That was the factor in winning the election for PCS General Secretary and turning the union into what it has become. That was broadly based on recognising that the strength of our union is in the workplace with its activist layer, the role of radical leaders to provide leadership and support the rank and file in building an active presence in the workplace.
Really our journey has turned the union in to what it is now. Not only am I very proud of the union because we have led the arguments against austerity and for the co-ordinated action back in 2010-11 over pensions. We also continue to be the union that builds boldly, looks to joint action across the public sector and back its members on call for strikes. So I am very, very proud of how we have transformed the civil service trade union movement. But I am also clear that there is an awful lot of work still to be done.
Socialist Appeal: Thank you for providing a clear picture as to why PCS is the left-wing union it is today. Obviously the context of this discussion is that the PCS General Secretary position is now up for election again. What has motivated you to stand again for this position?
Mark: Well, I think the first thing to say is that if I didn’t have a very clear motivation, that is based on the fact that no matter how far we have come, we still have a lot of work to do, then I wouldn’t be standing for re-election. It has been a hard period for me personally over the last 8 to 10 years, culminating obviously in the heart transplant operation of a few years ago. I know people have speculated about my health but I would not be standing if I didn’t feel healthy enough to do so. Secondly I wouldn’t be standing if I didn’t still have the vision and belief in what the union needs to be and that is my starting point.
Despite everything that we’ve done, the attacks of this Tory government have taken their toll on the trade union movement and on PCS in particular. Therefore I recognise that now is the time to be even more radical and provide even bolder leadership. This must be allied to an active rank and file and an active union presence in every workplace.
What I understand and offer from this election (although others don’t) is a very clear understanding that the world is changing quickly and the union must change and adapt and we need to be really focussed on getting more activists involved in branches and workplaces, because if that happens and we increase our strength on the ground, not only do we know we can smash the trade union ballot laws barrier but, more importantly, we can deliver the militant trade union action that can actually win not only local disputes but national disputes.
Really that is the vision, the unfinished business, that I have along with many other left comrades in the union in wanting to ensure that we have a union that will continue to win and that means having that base of activists on the ground.
Socialist Appeal: This leads me into the question of the programme you are standing on. You have the nomination of the Left Unity group within PCS, which is important in terms of your re-election.
Mark: The first thing to say is that winning the Left Unity nomination was very important. My programme for this election was and will be that this union has to be one that wins for its members. The most important thing to say – people want to be in a union that wins and delivers. That means winning everything, whether it is a personal case, a local dispute or a national dispute. We have to be a union that can win.
Therefore the thing I pose in this election is that I face up to challenges. There will be people who will put themselves forward in this election as being more left wing but my programme is based not on an abstract leftism and concepts but on a real radicalism based on recognising that the best way to win is to have an effective union at a grassroots level.
That means recognizing that the union can be overly bureaucratised, not just at a full-time level but at some of its lay sectors also. The pressure that people are often put under, with the cutting of facility time and a very aggressive management, means that it is our job to say that what is needed to face up to that pressure is more and more people who are active and prepared to do things for the union, irrespective of whether they can get time off granted to do that. Spreading the load rather than just one or two people doing everything.
What I offered at the start of this election is that now we need to deepen our roots, we’ve got to be bolder, we’ve got to be less formulaic, and the thing that guides us is we want to win and do whatever it takes to achieve that.
Socialist Appeal: You are facing a challenge from a candidate, Marion Lloyd, promoted by the Socialist Party. Can you outline what are the differences between the both of you? What does the challenge represent?
Mark: I think my first observation with reference to the Socialist Party challenge is that it confirms to me now that as an organisation they are increasingly removed from the working class and from the activist base in the union. Their challenge in this election tells me that they have become more interested in building their own organisation than a union capable of fighting back and winning.
Now that might sound quite harsh but I think it is really what needs saying. Essentially what Marion Lloyd’s candidacy is doing is a) that for the first time in our union history the Socialist Party is refusing to abide by the collective decision of the Left Unity organisation and b) in their determination to stand come what may, they are actually pandering to quite reactionary and right-wing ideas. Their attack on me and the union leadership over coming out in support of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government is attracting support from people on the right of the union.
So I actually see her candidacy, whilst always recognising that anyone has the right to stand in any union election, as underlining the political significance of the Socialist Party challenge. In that it is really now turning its back on really wanting to see an effective fighting union and a united left. It is an historic mistake that I think they will come very much to regret. I don’t think members in PCS will be taken in by what they say.
Socialist Appeal: You referred to the stick that the union is taking from some quarters over its support for a Labour victory and one under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Can you explain why the union has moved towards this position and towards the Labour Party and Corbyn in particular? What effect would having Corbyn in power have on PCS and its members?
Mark: Well we have certainly made an historic decision and, if I could just go back to your earlier question, it is a decision that Marion Lloyd and the Socialist Party have completed failed to grasp the conclusions from. It puts them at odds, not only with me but with some of the other left challengers in this election. These other challenges reflect genuine differences of opinions on some things but at least they are genuine challenges, whereas the Socialist Party challenge is based on rejecting everything that has been done in the union over recent years.
One thing I am very proud of both my leadership and that of the NEC is that, when New Labour was in power, we along with the RMT were the biggest unions to stand up to what Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were doing. We balloted our members to give the authority to stand and support candidates in the elections against New Labour and we pioneered the fact that we had a right as a union to expect the political system to support the working class and not attack the unions.
Now the Labour Party has changed from the one under Tony Blair that was attacking us to one where the leadership attends our picket lines, supports our union policies, over the scrapping of Universal Credit for example, delivering the type of society that we want. If the leadership of that party has changed so fundamentally it would be obscene almost not to recognise that shift as being in the interests of our members and our union and the working class generally. Our shift has followed that which has occurred in the Labour Party. I think the Socialist Party’s failure to recognise that shift is damning for them. They are on the wrong side of this argument and has effectively opened them up to quite right-wing ideas.
So the main significance of what the union has decided is that we will now be supporting and campaigning for a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour victory in a general election. We will be advising our members in England and Wales to vote Labour. We will be targeting constituencies and we will be looking to put resources and activists on the ground to campaign for Labour against the Tories in target seats, which is not something we have done before. We will be making it very clear that we want a Corbyn government out of this election.
Now if you go back to the time of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, we were in absolute opposition to what they were doing. We had the position that we would back candidates who backed us. We have always supported candidates like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell but we didn’t support Labour as such.
Now we recognise that a Labour government under Corbyn would unquestionably be in the interests of our members. That is the basis of the historic decision that we have made. It recognises that if you want a Labour government then you have to call on people to vote Labour. Marion Lloyd and her supporters say you should only vote for left Labour candidates in a general election, which raises the question of what you do in a seat where the candidate is not left-wing?
This shift in the union position – and why I think our members will benefit – is based on the following: Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have pledged to reintroduce national pay bargaining in the Civil Service, stop privatisation and bring our members in the private sector back in-house. They will not attack our redundancy scheme and will put more resources and jobs back in. They will ensure that public services our members deliver are ones that we can be proud off, that put people first, rather than sanctioning people in job centres or imposing hard targets to get people deported.
So our members’ interests will be absolutely furthered by a Jeremy Corbyn government, both in the material interests of our members but also in the wider sense of having more socially fulfilling jobs than the ones they currently have.
So that is why we on the left must be clear that come election day, you as a PCS member, need a Corbyn victory. Not only is that completely different from where we were when the union didn’t campaign politically at all under the right-wing, it also moves on from when we led the opposition to what Blair and Brown were doing in attacking working class interests. We now recognise that Corbyn will do the exact opposite so that is why we will support him.
I will finish with what I started on – recognising how far we have come but also, for me, how far we’ve got to go. The prize for me in this union election is not just hopefully winning but winning with a bold manifesto and winning with a call to not only unite and build the left but also to unite and build the union. The left and the union should be built on activity in and around the workplace and will grow ideas that will make our union an even more effective one.
That is the basis on which I am standing in this election and I will be happy to contrast that to what the other candidates are standing on and specifically to what Marion Lloyd and her supporters will argue, which really offers no way forward for the union.
Socialist Appeal: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us and we certainly will be calling on all our readers and supporters to vote and campaign for your re-election as General Secretary of PCS.