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.