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
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser