Mark Serwotka: Why the PCS union could run its own election candidates

"The choice between Tory and Labour cuts is no choice at all," says the union leader, who wants to challenge the "austerity consensus".

Faced with attacks on their conditions at work and at home more than a century ago, trade union members had a radical ambition: to break an anti-working class consensus maintained for generations by political elites whose interests were entirely at odds with the majority of people over whom they governed.

With today's Tory-led cabinet of millionaires driving through brutal and unnecessary spending cuts with no mandate, the need for the labour movement to fight politically as well as industrially is as urgent now as it was then.

In an historic ballot, PCS members have decided that we cannot just sit back and wait for this to happen, and we will now consider backing or standing our own candidates in national elections

Our ballot result shows there is a real desire to challenge the modern consensus that accepts cuts to jobs, pay, pensions and essential public services are necessary to 'deal with the deficit'. A consensus that condemns our communities to despair.

Instead of creating jobs and getting people off benefits and into work, consider what this government is doing to cut £28 billion from welfare spending: targeting the sick and disabled, increasing sanctions for benefits and privatising back to work schemes, with the all-important mood music blaming 'workshy scroungers' for being out of work.

Too much of this, sadly, was set in train by Labour. And not only on welfare. They paved the way for this administration with foundation hospitals, academies and the tens of thousands of civil service job cuts that, to give just one example, mean there are now 30,000 fewer staff in HM Revenue and Customs than there were when it was formed in 2005. Meanwhile, more than £120 billion is lost in tax every year through tax evasion and avoidance and because there aren't the staff and resources to collect it.

Collecting even a percentage of these missing billions would change the debate about public spending overnight, and forms a central part of the alternative to austerity that we, and other unions, have been advocating

So, where PCS members' jobs and public services are under threat, we will be pressing all candidates even harder to argue for this alternative. Where they refuse, we will consider throwing our weight behind those we can, in all conscience, support. Radical opposition to the diktats of the 'markets' has proven to be popular and successful in France, and we need candidates here who have the same courage and vision.

This is not a party political move. We have no interest in splitting the Labour vote to let a Tory in. Standing or supporting trade union candidates would be an exception, where no one else will stand up for our members' livelihoods and against the economic illiteracy of austerity.

We wouldn't have to do this if there were more Labour MPs prepared to speak up for trade union members, their families and their communities. But we do recognise that the choice between Tory and Labour cuts is no choice at all.

While clearly we will not be supporting Tories or Lib Dems – much less UKIP and the far right – our judgement will be based on the individual candidates, their records and what they stand for.

We already work very closely with MPs from Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Green party. So, as well as local anti-cuts candidates, it is entirely possible that decent MPs from established parties could get our backing.

The cuts consensus thrives on scapegoats, whether it is public sector workers, pensioners, students, or people entitled to benefits. We are pitted against one another, private versus public, young against old, made to choose between 'good' cuts and 'bad' ones.

But we know austerity isn't working and we know there is an alternative based on proper investment in our public services, not more cuts; on tackling the wealthy tax dodgers and helping out the millions instead of rewarding the millionaires.

We have had enough of politicians who consistently refuse to say these things. We have had enough of political elites fixing the terms of the debate.

In response to the biggest assault on our welfare state and our living conditions in anyone's memory, this is our radical ambition, fit for the 21st century, armed with a new weapon in our fight against austerity.

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union.

A demonstration in support of public sector strikes in 2011. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.