Bust up in PCS Left Unity shows it is time for a new start – Build a rank and file campaign for an AGS on a workers’ wage
Left Unity, the dominant unofficial group within the civil service trade union PCS, has been gripped for six months by the biggest split within its ranks since it took full control of the Union in 2003. The faction fight began as a dispute over who would be Left Unity’ candidate fin the 2019 PCS election for Assistant General Secretary and took a dramatic (but somewhat sad) turn on Sunday 2 December when the candidate selected by LU, Janice Godrich, had to withdraw because of ill-health. What the LU leadership will do next is unclear as we go to press, but we expect an announcement very soon.
This article sets out the background and the developments, examines the claims and counterclaims of the LU factions, and considers what is at stake for PCS members. Irrespective of our sharp political and industrial criticisms, PCS IL supporters wish Janice well and hope she recovers as soon as possible.
PCS Independent Lefts select rank and file candidate
In November the PCS Independent Left (PCS IL) selected John Moloney, a genuine rank and file PCS activist with an outstanding campaigning and negotiating record of delivery to members, whose work transformed the approach to equality in the civil service, to contest the 2019 PCS election for Assistant General Secretary (AGS).
The PCS IL (which includes supporters of the AWL) did so as the only opposition to the LU/PCS leadership and the only principled socialist organisation consistently campaign within PCS for the election of full time officials and for them to be paid salaries significantly more closely aligned with that of the members.1 John Moloney will no doubt set out his election programme in due course but for certain, he wishes to see a radical transformation of PCS so that it become a genuinely membership led trade union, one that delivers a great deal more for members than has been the case under the LU leadership, and he has undertaken to take no more than an EO salary if elected, donating the rest of the vastly bloated fat cat AGS salary back to the cash strapped PCS.
Left Unity divided over which member of the PCS leadership should stand for AGS
In stark contrast Left Unity (LU) divided last May into two warring camps backing two different members of the current PCS leadership to be the LU AGS candidate:
• Socialist Party (SP) member Janice Godrich, who has been the PCS President for the past 17 years with the privileges that brings, and
• her considerably more privileged fellow SP member Chris Baugh, incumbent AGS since 2004 and currently drawing down approximately £80,000 pa plus £10,000 pa in PCS pension contributions towards his fat pension.
The SP chose Chris Baugh to be its candidate in the internal LU selection process. However, Janice Godrich broke SP ranks and announced her candidature for the LU nomination on Facebook on 16 May. She did so with the support, and according to the SP at the instigation2, of PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka. She timed her announcement to coincide with PCS’ annual Conference, where she could begin the public gathering of support in earnest.
Delegates at the Conference were taken by surprise –Godrich and Baugh had both been members of the SP for decades and never been publicly known to have a political disagreement3 and the large majority of delegates were not aware of any substantive industrial or political dispute between Baugh and Serwotka.4 It quickly became apparent – and as we shall later in this article - their relationship lay at the heart of the internal LU faction fight.
Building their support
With the support of Serwotka and three other SP members on the PCS NEC, Godrich gathered a large number of prominent PCS representatives behind her, established a new grouping within LU named Socialist View (SV) and secured the (very limited) electoral support of the SWP, with its three LU NEC members.5
The SP was incredulous that anybody within Left Unity would challenge Baugh6 but they were especially shocked that the challenge should come from the most prominent lay representative they had in PCS7 and was supported by their other two leading lay representatives, PCS Deputy Vice President Fran Heathcote and ordinary NEC member (but for many years Vice President) John McInally.
The powerful position these three SP members held in both the PCS national leadership and within the PCS DWP Executive, and their alliance with the General Secretary, clearly exposed the SP to risk of even more setback than they had already suffered.
However, with the three remaining SP loyalists on the PCS NEC, Baugh and the SP as a political organisation pulled together a smaller number of prominent PCS independents around the “Reelect Chris Baugh” campaign.
A critical aspect of the SP’s response to the challenge to Baugh, in meetings and in their press, has been that while anybody has the right to contest any position within LU (and presumably the wider union), left unity itself requires that people and organisations do not challenge left incumbents who are doing a good job (however that is defined) and to challenge a SP incumbent (from a powerful position) is to risk a split on the left.8 While a certain amount of diplomacy may be necessary to hold disparate individuals and groups together, the argument is essentially a self-serving and undemocratic argument for an organisation that was, and to a certain extent still is, entrenched in various lay and full time positions.
The conflict widened
The battle front inevitably widened when the time came for the LU nominations and voting process (October and November):
• With Godrich standing for AGS there was a slot to be the LU presidential candidate, for which the SV nominated Fran Heathcote and the SP nominated the loyalist and PCS NEC member Marion Lloyd;
• SV nominated candidates for Chair and Editor of LU NC against the SP loyalist incumbents Lloyd and Dave Semple (also an NEC member).
The SP also complained that the SV’s NEC slate, if successful, would have automatically removed the three SP loyalists currently on the NEC from the LU 2019 NEC slate9 but that was not the case and the SV claim that they deliberately left space for the SP loyalists to unite LU.10
But the SP’s alarm at what they saw as a comprehensive challenge provides an invaluable insight into the top down way in which they understand the labour movement and their role as a Marxist organisation within it. Equating the loss of national PCS and national LU roles with their total silencing, they complained, “… they want to remove the voice of the Socialist Party in PCS”,.
A clear victory for SV
After a heated pre-LU conference dispute11 over the scrutineers rejecting some postal votes and the votes cast at three regional meetings, a dispute which carried over into the a lengthy debate at LU Conference on 1 December and is still the subject of bitter comment from the SP12 , The final voting figures were announced at the LU conference on the 1 December and issued by the LU National Secretary the next day. They showed that the SP retains a serious base in LU despite the loss of several important members, but they were predictably13 well beaten.
Godrich secured the nomination for AGS; Fran Heathcote decisively defeated SP loyalist Marion Lloyd to be the LU candidate for PCS President; the SP candidate for one of the PCS Vice President posts was well beaten; and the SP lost their two remaining comrades on the LU NC, Marion Lloyd and Dave Semple.14
The SV also heavily defeated the SP on their call for a special pay conference, for calling disaggregated ballots as opposed to a single national ballot next year, and for widening the pay ballot out to include non-pay issues.
It was a day of comprehensive defeat for the SP in an arena where it has been able to command majority support with ready confidence for many years. But that was before it lost a President, a Deputy Vice President, and two NEC members, with the influence they carry, before Serwotka’s open assault, and before some LU supporters (and organisations) saw an opportunity to cut down to size an organisation they see as domineering and sectarian.
Godrich declined the LU nomination for AGS
The day after these triumphs for the SV Janice Godrich advised the LU National Secretary that she was not well and would not now be accepting the LU nomination for AGS.
It was a bombshell,15 and guarantees that the internal fight will continue and arouse more antagonism and hostility between the LU factions.
The LU NC now has a serious decision to make. The two obvious choices in front of it are to:
• Declare Baugh the candidate because he was the “runner up” in the election, and that is exactly what the SP /Chris Baugh are demanding.
• Select another candidate, one who did not contest the LU AGS election, because Baugh is (allegedly) a destabilising element in the PCS leadership who works to undermine Serwotka and PCS policy, he has been defeated on that basis and it makes no sense in those circumstances to seek to re-elect him, and that is essentially the view being expounded on the Socialist View website.
Whatever the LUNC now decides a further period of intense factional heat appears likely because there is no way of settling Godrich’s replacement without one side or the other having to take a hit and the current alignment of forces makes it extremely likely odds that it will be the SP that takes it and soon: nominations for the AGS and other PCS posts open on 17 January.
Removal of Baugh key to SV and Serwotka
The relationship between Baugh and Serwotka has been central to the punch up within LU16 and it will be central in the immediate period ahead.
It is impossible to see SV camp allowing Baugh to stand after all that they have alleged about his behaviour as a saboteur of Serwotka and the Union: Serwotka has been adamant that he wants Baugh gone.
The last six months has been essentially a struggle to remove Baugh and therefore, either as plan or inevitable consequence, a struggle to reduce the power of the SP within LU and PCS, locking them out of the leadership for the first time in the history of PCS.
Mark Serwotka explicitly campaigned on the basis that Chris Baugh has worked to undermine him and the policies and future well-being of the union. He and his supporters have been clear that Serwotka cannot work with Baugh.
Fran Heathcote has set out at a long case against Baugh as a source of mischief in HQ and a part of an organised but unnamed opposition group (the SP!17).
Janice Godrich made the alleged differences between Serwotka and Baugh a critical factor in her campaign: “I am standing… because members deserve a united leadership at the top of PCS…”
Twenty two HMRC LU activists were organised to sign a letter referring to Baugh as a “….a candidate whose relationship with the General Secretary has completely, and visibly, broken down…”
More worryingly, in a Stalinoid manner of finding people guilty by petition (or show of hands) twenty eight DWP LU activists were persuaded to go further and signed a letter declaring themselves, from afar, ”convinced” that Baugh had “consistently” undermined “our General Secretary” and “the union’s leadership on the major policies of our union” and that this behaviour, combined with “his industrially conservative approach”, has been “instrumental in the breakdown in relationship at the top of PCS.”
While the campaign to replace Baugh has touched on industrial and political issues18 it is the accusation that Baugh “has consistently undermined our General Secretary” that has been the emotional driver in the campaign and the clinching argument for why Baugh must go: his relationship with the General Secretary has broken down because of his bad behaviour.
A faction fight beginning in the PCS bureaucracy
The Serwotka/Baugh relationship was no doubt tinged with this or that private disagreement and this or that difference of emphasis, but it was certainly private to them, their respective mates and allies in the PCS bureaucracy, and a tiny handful of leading lay representative.
Until the faction fight broke out most activists were completely unaware of any claimed or actual substantial differences over union policy between Baugh and Serwotka. The root of the conflict lies in the PCS bureaucracy and the problems between Baugh and Serwotka were, to a large extent at least, personal in nature.
The PCS bureaucracy has obviously handled policy or organisational or other disagreements in a subterranean manner, out of sight and sound of activists (except, perhaps, for carefully placed whispers), and without any proper sense of accountability to anybody: Baugh’s alleged behaviour was never reported to the NEC or dealt with in a transparent manner within the Union’s structures and procedures.
It is equally obvious that while the relationship issues between Serwotka and Baugh were discussed a lot within the structures of the SP and with the SP, they were not referred to the democratic structures of PCS at all. Indeed, while Mark Serwotka found time to correspond with the SP about Baugh, he did not find time to set the issues out in writing to the PCS NEC. And this farrago goes on in what the PCS leadership like to call a membership led union!
And Janice Godrich, a lay official?
As President for seventeen years and spending a huge amount of time in PCS HQ, Godrich inevitably got caught with the personalities and conflicts of the leading bureaucrats, effectively became part of or semi attached to that bureaucracy, and, as a member of a would be Marxist organisation, failed to challenge the bureaucracy through the election of full time officers, the alignment of their pay with that of members, and through establishing a disciplined and democratic accountability of Serwotka, Baugh et al to the NEC. The NEC’s standing orders and the repeatedly late delivery of NEC papers to NEC members, stands the notional senior lay/full time official relationship on its head.
The historic industrial and political unity of the faction leaders
For a decade and a half Serwotka, Godrich, Baugh and John McInally were toeing the same line as members of the SP and you could not get a sheet of paper between them on major industrial issues despite major defeats (most notably but not only pay, pensions, severance terms, jobs).19
The LU factions still essentially agree that their shared history of leadership has been a grand one of socialist and militant resistance: their narrative only differs when explaining what has gone wrong: Baugh went of the straight and narrow (he became a divisive figure) or Serwotka went of the straight and narrow (he bent under the weight of the class attacks).20
Inventing and exaggerating differences
The history of damn all differences raised an obvious difficulty for both camps - how to distinguish themselves and garner support despite their hitherto Teflon like unity on all key industrial and political issues.
The response on both sides was an astonishing level of “programmatic vagueness” that might sound good to the politically untrained ear but which makes it impossible to hold anybody to anything combined an effort to develop artificial and/or to artificially inflate differences around which they might mobilise support but which involved both camps in dreadful displays of hypocrisy and selective memory.
Janice Godrich declared that her first key priority as AGS would be to “Bring my experience of over 30 years as a lay rep at all levels to the leadership. To ensure that PCS reflects the reality of life for members and activists in the workplace.”
Chris Baugh and his allies declared “On equality, we stand for the removal of all barriers which divide workers.”
Both statements committed the respective candidates to nothing precise and precisely nothing.
Full time officers pay – Hypocrisy
Fran Heathcote and Kevin McHugh condemned the hypocrisy of the SP and Chris Baugh because he takes the full PCS salary of about £80,000 when the SP policy is for workers’ representatives to take a skilled workers wage.
Hannah Sell of the SP pointed out their own hypocrisy by noting that they have not placed any demand on Mark Serwotka in relation to his even bigger salary. Truth be told that Serwotka gives little back to PCS, believes he is entitled to an enormous salary, and has forgotten what he used to say in his younger days.
However in her tale about Baugh’s apparently honoured “…pledge…to repay part of his salary to union funds and make regular donations to strikes and labour movement causes in Britain and internationally” Sale oddly failed to boast about the amount of his enormous salary over the last fourteen years Baugh has [not] given back to PCS or how much he has given to other named causes.
Janice Godrich said she would only take an (undefined) skilled worker’s wage (although it did not appear in her LU election leaflet) and that was a welcome commitment whatever our political differences. But she also knew that she could not be held to that commitment because LU, the SP, and key people in the faction fight – including herself, Serwotka, Heathcote, McInally, Baugh, Semple, Lloyd - have repeatedly and successfully opposed the PCS IL’s motions calling for the full-time officer salary structure to be moved closer to that of the members.
Peter Taaffe the SP General Secretary, enraged by “the arrogance of the [PCS] General Secretary”, called at Baugh’s conference fringe meeting in May for workers’ representatives to be on a worker’s wage, while he was standing next to PCS Assistant General Secretary and SP member who is pulling down an enormous salary that it puts him into John McDonnell’s definition of “rich”!
National pay campaign
Tactical differences did emerge over pay – principally national pay claim versus disaggregated ballots and a total focus on pay or widening the points of dispute - but these were and are containable within a democratic framework and have been deliberately over-emphasised by both factions.
The SP presented themselves as the champions of learning the lessons from the 2018 national ballot and demagogically proclaimed that Janice Godrich and her supporters in Socialist View were opposed to an open, democratic and thorough discussion of these issues because they opposed a special pay conference. Yet the SP had not called for a special ballot in years despite the falling real living standards of members and the need to properly prepare the 2018 campaign (it was not).
For considering disaggregated ballots as a way of getting round the anti-union laws the SV condemned the SP as lacking confidence in members, a pious hypocrisy when the leadership had not called a legal national pay ballot in years prior to 2018 and a way of stopping people from thinking.
The Labour Party
Serwotka has argued that PCS has “…agreed to campaign for a Corbyn/McDonnell led UK government…” in the direct interests of members.
If that will mean, apart from anything else, a generalised call to vote Labour at the next election then that will be good and progress, because the only group in favour of such a call in 2016 was the IL and PCS nationally had damn all to say during the 2017 General Election.
For its part the SP continues its balancing act of trying to sound fully committed to a Corbyn led Labour victory while wanting to only back the Left Labour candidates. They advance valid points, for instance the role of Labour Councils in making cuts, in order to draw sectarian conclusions - don’t participate directly in the political battles that are now taking place in the Labour Party. They do not want to see PCS calling on members straight forwardly to vote Labour.
It is possible that these differences to the Corbyn led Labour Party might develop into something more significant but at present the SV leadership has not put forward any proposals or undertaken any activity that would make a significant difference to the Union’s hitherto coy and passive support for a Corbyn led Labour Government.
SP spotted a right-wing drift to bureaucratic control – selective memory
The SP argued that Serwotka has bent under the pressure of Government attacks and the class struggle; retreated from the tasks of continually trying to persuade members that they must take effective action in the face of each attack and to continually seek coordinated action with other unions; is presiding over and promoting “a dangerous trend towards a… strengthening of the power of unelected officials” which Chris Baugh and (unnamed) Socialist Party members have tried to counter only to have been blocked at “each stage”, including by “…Janice Godrich, who has been oblivious of these dangers.”
However, the SP has not presented any evidence of the efforts of Baugh and the unnamed SP members to resist either the right-wing drift or the rising bureaucracy and they did sound the alarm to members and activists.
In fact, last May the SP could only see left wing merit where they now see bureaucratic drift, with Baugh as Trotsky. Thus on the 15th May 2018, the day before Janice Godrich said she would contest the AGS nomination, SP loyalist Marion Lloyd, described LU’s success in the NEC elections as “…a vote of confidence in Left Unity based on its record and on what it offers taking the union forward.”
The SP built on their cod Marxist picture by complaining, “Our party has long supported extending the election of officers from the current two elected full-time officials…As a result, it has become LU policy, passed at the PCS national conference in 2017. Yet its implementation has been continually delayed” (emphasis added).
But they don’t explain what took them so long! By 2017 Left Unity had controlled the Union for some 14 years and the SP was by far the most powerful group within LU. They could have had the same policy of electing officials any time they liked.
But instead they spent many of those years opposing the efforts of the PCS Independent Left to secure the election of full-time officials and protecting the interests of SP full time officials and other friends.
Their hypocrisy about elections was designed to focus attention on the senior non-elected PCS officials who are in the Serwotka camp as the bureaucrats and to exclude Baugh from that category.
To that end they downplayed the importance of high salaries – when Baugh is the second highest paid official - in creating a detached group of officials who become used to life away from workplace pressures, and to a level of comfort that most members can only dream of, and who start to relate to activists and members in a command fashion and with a dismissive arrogance.
The reality of a PCS bureaucracy
The SP weaved undeniable elements (drop in the number of activists, the lack of facility time, the pressures upon lay representatives) into their account of the drift towards bureaucratic control but only in order to weave the fairy tale of them heroically resisting this trend, a resistance unbeknown to the entire activist base of PCS.
However, the SV’s dismissal of the issue of bureaucracy in PCS was banal: “The negative image of a bureaucratised PCS put forward by the Socialist Party’s leadership will be unrecognisable to the union’s activists who are rightly proud of their union.”21
It is a typical leadership ploy to deflect intelligent discussion: if you say anything critical you cannot be proud of the Union! One might as well say that the image painted elsewhere on the SV website, of a group (SP) of officials running around HQ obstructing the leadership “will be unrecognisable to the union’s activists who are rightly proud of their union.”
In truth the long period of defeat that the Union has suffered on one issue after another, the dreadful levels of membership participation in the union (approximately 7% of members voted in the 2018 NEC elections), the substantial reduction in union density, the excessive demands on representatives’ time, have created the space for a leadership that has long held power to both look inwards, to focus on their clashes and their status, and to treat lay officials and members in a far less engaged way than might otherwise be the case.
Honest and hard-working full-time officers in both camps routinely complain of the competing decision-making chains, the frequent absence of actual decisions, the inability to get things done, laziness and incompetence, and of bullying. Senior lay officials who spend large amounts of time in the comfort of HQ are part of, and get caught up with, its factionalism.
Members and representatives get frustrated at their inability to get responses from HQ – not all the time and not with all officers – but often enough not to feel that members are not necessarily top of HQ’s concerns. Representatives from time to time complain of a sense of being ordered by HQ.
We should therefore give due weight to the “personal” or subjective factor” in the current split: the role of subjectivity, ego and status, personality clashes, long held antagonisms, memories of long ago political clashes, careerism, freedom from the workplace discipline and pressures felt by members and lay representatives, competing personal and political agendas.
The material root for such issues lies in the union bureaucracy, its privileges, its lack of accountability, and its promise and delivery of high pay and matching pensions for those who side with the right people. That fact is in and of itself a fundamental condemnation of the unfitness of the “Left” leadership over the last eighteen years and the failure of the various would be Marxist groups who have members sitting on the NEC.
The AGS and NEC elections in 2019: start building
Neither LU faction deserves the support of principled socialists, union activists and union members. Their completely unprincipled bust up, reflected in using any argument that suits them irrespective of its merit and what it says about them (full time officer pay!) illustrates what is wrong with PCS.
But the leading figures and activists on both sides need to consider whether their faction fight has vindicated their politics or necessitated a fundamental rethink. To the extent that they do the latter members of the IL should stand ready to engage in constructive dialogue.
In the meantime, IL activists should work constructively and respectfully with lay and full-time officers in both camps in trying to deliver a successful national pay ballot next year. We can win the ballot and build a stronger PCS.
The PCS IL also needs to continue its dialogue with activists and PCS branches that stand outside of the IL but who want to see a far reaching alternative to the current leadership within PCS: one that bases itself on the membership and is properly accountable to the members; that ends the culture of spin and provides the information that members need to hold leaders to account; that systematically reaches out to the many thousands of non-unionised civil and public sector servants and super exploited workers in support industries; that will end the situation in which becoming a PCS full time officer is the best paid career move an activist could ever make; and which actually leads members in the successful defence of our terms and conditions of employment.
The AGS and NEC elections will give us the opportunity to do just that. Build the campaign to elect John Moloney. Build the campaign to elect the IL NEC candidates!