A response to John McInally and the Socialist Party

Submitted by AWL on 17 February, 2015 - 6:10 Author: Charlie McDonald

In a bizarre article published on the Socialist Party website, the vice-president of the civil service union PCS, and leading SP member, John McInally, has attacked the record of Workers’ Liberty within the PCS and the wider labour movement.

The topic of the article is the latest Tory assault on civil servants. The two largest government departments (Department of Work and Pensions and Revenue and Customs) have been instructed to withdraw “check off”. This is the mechanism by which union subscriptions are deducted from salary and given to PCS union. PCS pays a nominal fee for this service.

The attack appears to have caught the National Executive Committee on the hop and led to an emergency National Excutive Committee meeting in December 2014. There, a number of emergency financial measures were agreed, which included the sale of our headquarters building and the cancellation of this year’s Group and National elections. I think the Executive did not think the withdrawal of check-off would happen so quickly. I also think there was a certain naïve belief that it would be a lot easier to get members to make payments direct to the union, and that members would just oblige.

The article begins and ends with delusional comparisons between the attack on the PCS and the great miners’ strike of 1984-85.

That was an all-out year-long strike where two pickets were killed, almost 12,000 pickets were arrested, coal fields were turned into virtual police states, and the courts attempted to sequestrate all of the union’s funds. It was a fight for the survival of not just jobs but whole communities. To draw a comparison to what is happening to the PCS is embarrassing.

But this kind of hyperbole fits with the narrative that McInally and the Socialist Party like to promote: that the PCS leadership is the greatest leadership the British labour movement has seen since that of the NUM during the strike. McInally even compares the way the NUM did not call a national ballot during that strike (because, it was argued, it would impede a class struggle) with the PCS not calling internal elections this year!

Exaggeration aside, McInally is right to highlight that the Tories are attacking our union because it is seen by the government as the most outspoken opponent of austerity and that we have been prepared to take action to defend jobs and services. They have an ideological hatred of the organised working class and their unions. His analysis here is essentially correct, if a little anodyne: the Tories are really horrible, and they really hate us.

McInally claims that Workers’ Liberty have said the threat to PCS is “overstated”. We have written extensively on the financial crisis in the union and the cancellation of elections. Nowhere have we said the threat is overstated. Indeed our activists in PCS are doing much work on the ground defending the union from the very-real attack on check-off.

What we have actually said is that it is difficult to know the full scale of the crisis as activists and members have not been told the details!

McInally and the Socialist Party have put it about that there is a level of information or “truth” that activists and members should not be party to lest the employer catches on is frankly worrying. This is a socialist group who claim to believe in rank-and-file organising.

Socialist Party member Tony Mulhearn has written, “Frankly, when you’re in a war to the death, which is what this is, an astute leadership, which PCS is blessed with, cannot reveal its every negotiating tactic, or even its strategic approach to the mass of the membership… membership trust in the leadership is vital”.

Whether you believe that you are “blessed” with this leadership or not, excusing the bizarre blanket call for membership loyalty, the premise that a covenant of secrecy within the leadership (and in some cases between the leadership and the employer) should exist is deeply concerning when it comes from a supposed left leadership.

We should engender a culture of complete openness and trust between an elected leadership and the membership. That includes full disclosure on negotiations, National Executive papers and “how screwed we are”.

McNally then goes on to criticise Workers’ Liberty for saying that the leadership have used the financial crisis as cover for not calling elections. The fact of the matter is that the union could have found ways to hold elections this year, if democracy was in their DNA, as they claim.

According to the 2014 annual report, National and Group elections cost £590,000. They would cost less this year because we will have fewer members due to cuts and the withdrawal of check off. There is no legal requirement to hold a postal ballot for sub-national elections. The major cost of printing the election address booklet could have been avoided by putting it online.

The union budgeted £700,000 this year for the production of a magazine for activists. That too could have been put online. The union’s conference is going ahead this year. The size of delegations could have been cut. Delegate conference costs in excess of £1 million. Our TUC affiliation fees last year were £688,585. If democracy is in our DNA, why couldn’t we tell the TUC that they would have to waive our affiliation fees for a year due the financial crisis we face?

As we’re in such financial direstraits, why are these things continuing to be paid for, but elections must be cut?

Then of course is the vexed subject of Full Time Officer pay. PCS pays salaries to FTOs starting at £40,133 rising to £92,094. We have consistently argued over the last ten years that FTO salaries should be in line with what the vast bulk of PCS members receive (and that they should be elected). Indeed we quite like the Socialist Party’s formulation: “Full-time union officials to receive no more than a worker’s wage”. But we don’t add, “except in PCS” to the end of that sentence.

McInally says that we had the opportunity to stand against Mark Serwotka (General Secretary) and Chris Baugh (Assistant General Secretary) but we chose not to. He doesn’t tell his readers that he virtually begged us not to stand in those elections as he calculated that we could potentially split the left vote in the face of a right-wing challenge. As it turns out, there wasn’t a right wing challenge in either election.

Most outrageously he finishes with the claim that “AWL plays the ‘left card’ in PCS while working with right-wingers in some other unions”, and that “its history in PCS and our predecessor union CPSA is one of divisiveness, often splitting from the united left at times exactly when management are on the offensive.”

Many of us, dealing with personal case work, have become accustomed (when dealing with managers) to general allegations being made, without any specific information let alone evidence to back up those allegation: Which other unions? And which right wingers?

I joined the union in 1989 when it was the CPSA. I joined the Socialist Caucus faction as they seemed to me the most serious activists with the best ideas. At the time some members of Socialist Caucus were in the Broad Left and some weren’t. Those that were tended to be, but not exclusively, members of Socialist Organiser, the forerunner of the AWL.

The Independent Left was established in 2006 when the Socialist Caucus voted formally to split with Left Unity. It is a matter of record that the AWL opposed this decision, not because we agreed with the policies of LU at the time. We just thought it wasn’t practical in terms of our numbers.

Perhaps the occasion McInally is thinking is when we did split with LU in our decision to s­­­tand Mark Serwotka in the 2000 PCS general secretary election against McInally and the Socialist Party’s wishes. If we had have abided by the LU conference decision on the question, we would have supported their candidate, the Blairite Hugh Lanning. It was only when Mark and his campaign managed to secure 50 branch nominations that LU changed its position and supported Mark.

But why let facts get in the way of a sectarian attack?