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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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue