PCS has been run by a “broad left” alliance, made up of the Left Unity grouping working with some more right-wing elements, for over 15 years. In that time, after an initial increase, membership has haemorrhaged. In all major government departments, membership has fallen by between 10-50%.
The “broad left” narrative is essentially that, if you elect a “left-wing” leadership, you can simply put your trust in them and everything else will fall into place. The dominance of this narrative has led to a decline in workplace activism and militancy, and a decline in density across all bargaining units in the union.
Mark Serwotka, the incumbent general secretary, says he is “standing on his record.” This is the reality of that record.
Following a split in the leadership faction, Serwotka will be opposed by Marion Lloyd, a member of the Socialist Party. But Marion Lloyd has supported, and in some cases initiated, many of the bad decisions taken by our “left” leadership. Her differences with Serwotka are very recent discoveries on her part. For example, both Serwotka and Lloyd supported the cancellation of union elections in 2015, allegedly to save money. Both backed the 2005 pensions sell-out, which has led to a two-tier setup where new entrants were on much worse terms and conditions than existing staff. And both supported the hated and divisive “Employee Deal” in the Department for Work and Pensions, where the majority of PCS members work, which saw attacks on terms and conditions, including a reduction in weekends off work, in return for a few crumbs.
Against these two candidates, who essentially represent different factions within the union bureaucracy, Bev Laidlaw is standing as a rank-and-file candidate backed by the Independent Left. Bev’s perspective is that the union needs to be rebuilt from the grassroots, by empowering reps and activists to organise at workplace level. Bev is a low-grade, frontline civil servant in an operational role in a job centre, with recent experience of organising strikes in her area. She has committed to only take an average PCS member’s wage if elected, rather than the full general secretary salary of nearly £100k.
That is the essential difference at the heart of this election — a perspective of rank-and-file empowerment and rebuilding from the ground up, versus the idea that electing “fighting”, “left-wing” leaders is an end in itself.
While Bev has fewer branch nominations than the other two candidates, Independent Left candidates tend to punch above their weight in terms of turning the vote out.
We will be working with the branches that nominated Bev to ensure that work is done. We’re also organising a programme of leafleting at civil service workplaces across the country, along with visits to workplaces and branch meetings.
We’re also aiming to work with branches to organise hustings meetings, and hopefully persuade some of the branches that didn’t nominate a candidate to recommend a vote for Bev to their members. Unlike Serwotka, Bev doesn’t have the communications machine of the union officialdom behind her, so our campaign will be based on grassroots activists doing work on the ground.
People can support the campaign by getting involved in leafleting, promoting Bev’s candidacy on social media, and donating. The campaign website is bev4gs.com.
We also aim to grow and consolidate the Independent Left, if possible as part of a wider rank-and-file regroupment, as part of the campaign. Over the past couple of years, a number of independently-minded branches and activists who didn’t feel they had a home in the existing dominant factions in PCS have emerged. Some of those people have joined the Independent Left, some are involved in the looser PCS Rank-and-File grouping, and some are in both.
We want to use the general secretary election to grow and consolidate that layer of people, not simply on the basis of negative opposition to Serwotka and the existing bureaucracy, but on the basis of a shared perspective that what’s necessary to rebuild union power in our workplaces is workplace activism, starting fires wherever possible via industrial action, and developing a higher level of rank-and-file engagement.