MARK SERWOTKA, general secretary of the civil servants’ union PCS, spoke to Socialist Worker as part of our series on the future for the left.
The anti-war movement has raised debate over what type of political organisations we need. Some people say reclaim the Labour Party. What do you think?
‘The anti-war movement was massive. We saw three of the largest demonstrations in British history. It united trade unionists, pensioners, campaigners, people of different politics, people from the Muslim community. These marches were massive. They present a real political opportunity. This doesn’t mean that everybody would be attracted to socialist politics, but a large proportion would be. How do we tap into that?
‘While I wish those well who are trying to reclaim the Labour Party, I’m not one of them. I don’t think it’s a project that shows much sign of being successful. Possibly in the 1970s and 80s, those who were fighting in the Labour Party were justified in thinking it was a battle that at times was going very well. But I see no evidence now that there is a remote possibility for reclaiming the Labour Party. For me the time has come to increase the impetus on breaking the mould, to offer people an alternative to the left of Labour.
‘I think that’s a question that needs to be raised in the trade union movement and with people who’ve never been in any political party. They have seen the futility of politics in this country, where a Labour government can ignore the will of the people and go to war. They are looking for something different.
‘In Scotland I think the project is far ahead of the rest of the UK. The success of the Scottish Socialist Party is startling. It nails the lie that there can’t be any alternative outside of the Labour Party.
‘They have six MSPs and a fairly good base across Scotland attracting support from trade unionists. I think that is a particularly positive development. In England we have the Socialist Alliance, and that is a project I support. But I think it’s also reached a stage where it has to seriously examine the way forward.
‘Some of the election results have been disappointing. It’s good we’ve won a councillor in Preston. We’ve had some good results like Paul Foot’s mayoral campaign in Hackney. But I think that project needs to be moved on. I think one of the keys for the Socialist Alliance is to broaden its appeal.
‘I noticed Ian McCartney, the chair of the Labour Party, was crowing that the debate about unions severing the link was completely scuppered and that all was well, which is a very strange reading of the situation. Certainly in unions like the RMT and FBU there appears to be a very strong move to alter fundamentally their link with the Labour Party.
‘Other unions are trying to hold the line. In Unison and the CWU there are actually very healthy debates. Those who are argue the Labour Party is the only show in town, particularly those in the trade union movement, point to the fact it’s the only show because there is no alternative. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy unless they are prepared to try to build that alternative.
‘I support the Socialist Alliance talking to others on the left to see whether it is possible to form an electoral alliance that can attract greater levels of support.
‘We have to show there is an alternative. Scotland shows what can be done and I think that’s what we have to work on now in England and Wales.’
What do you think is the mood among workers in Britain?
‘I think things are really bubbling. I would be not at all surprised if we saw an explosion of anger over the coming period.
‘The attacks on pensions in the public sector, and the problems with private sector pensions, are going to attract vibrant campaigning and industrial action. In the PCS people are up in arms about the pensions. We’ve had lots of anecdotal evidence of people saying they have not been to a union meeting before but want to know what the union is prepared to do about pensions. On public services, privatisation and pay I think the situation is likely to explode.
‘At the Amicus union conference Derek Simpson talked about 13,000 jobs a week being lost. At this rate we’ll have no manufacturing left by 2008. More civil servants are threatened by privatisation by this government than at any time in the Conservative years. In our union only one in four of our members who have been privatised has access to a final salary pension scheme.
‘It’s a truism that united we stand, divided we fall. But the attacks are a united front from the government. The unions have to have a united response. When you look at the firefighters’ dispute the action was solid, with support inside their FBU union and across the whole labour movement.
‘What they experienced was the full might of the state against them. They have come out of it with one or two gains. They didn’t get everything they wanted, but they remained intact and avoided being smashed. Although members will look to their unions to fight industrial battles, I think the treatment of the firefighters has raised political issues. Members want to know why their unions are funding a party that treated public sector workers in such a disgraceful way.’
What role do you think this means for the left union leaders?
‘Take myself, for example. I was elected PCS general secretary in December 2000. We then had to go through a coup d’etat from our right wing, and that cost a lot in the courts. I am now confirmed in post, and we are awaiting the results of the national executive elections. I think it’s the best prospect the left have had of winning for many years. That will raise expectations.
‘When people elect left leaders they are making a protest about the current situation and are demanding the leaders do more. I think in terms of the TUC general council it’s healthy that those on the left regularly meet to discuss tactics and plan strategy. We should have joint strategies for fighting on the industrial front.
‘The PCS is currently talking to Unison about joint campaigning over defending public services. My vision on that initiative is that it focuses from the bottom right up to the top, from the smallest office to the branches to the regions, so we campaign together.
‘The attacks are the same, so we need a coordinated response. Although a block of people are described as ‘awkward’, politically they are very different. We have to work on what unites us.
‘Clearly the position on the Labour Party is one that divides people. People like myself and Bob Crow increasingly see the role of the unions is not to prop up the Labour Party but is to be in opposition to them, on behalf of our members. That division needs to be addressed by discussion.
‘But there is the prospect for joint working, for instance, around supporting the best left Labour MPs like Jeremy Corbyn, Alice Mahon and Alan Simpson. It’s right to support those people. They are really good socialists. On the other side of the coin surely people should be able to unite around not supporting Straw, Blunkett and Blair.’
Are you optimistic about the prospects for the movement?
‘I think we have seen a very vibrant movement, here and internationally. The anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation movement has shown the way forward. But I would add a note of caution. With all this protest, unless people can see a vehicle in which to focus this opposition there is a danger it could dissipate.
‘The disillusionment with Labour in some of the old Labour working class strongholds is manifesting itself in a vote for the British National Party (BNP), for example. That is something that should ring alarm bells.
‘Home secretary David Blunkett talks about ‘swamping’ and says that people should be speaking English in their own house. He panders to people who attack others as scapegoats. He has whipped up, whether intentionally or not, the racism that we see manifesting itself in votes for the BNP.
‘It has to be challenged on every level. In areas where the BNP are standing, it has to be challenged politically and we also have to stand up for asylum seekers. It’s right to be enthusiastic and optimistic about the future. But if we don’t get it right we could miss a massive opportunity. It could well be the events of the next few months and years that will shape decades to come.
‘The role of socialists is to give hope to those people and unite as many as we can to try to move forward. This is a real responsibility.’
Where do you think the movement goes from here? Let us know at [email protected]
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