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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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up  coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.