Tuesday, February 19, 2008

How can an alternative to the main parties be developed?

The following article has been written by Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the civil servants union PCS, describing the attacks being made on public-sector workers by the government and calling for left unity in opposition to them.

It’s over ten years since the Tories were thrown out of office. But instead of Labour beginning the long overdue process of reversing the effects of 18 years of Tory rule we have a government in crisis. Attacks on low paid public servants, massive inequality between rich and poor, privatisation, war and sleaze all continue. The replacement of Tony Blair with Gordon Brown seems to have had no effect on policy.

PCS is in the front line of the government’s attacks on the welfare state and public servants. The recent Comprehensive Spending Review announced cuts of £30 billion across Whitehall departmental budgets. This comes on top of a so-called ‘efficiency programme’ that has seen tens of thousands of jobs lost in jobcentres, benefit offices, pension centres, local tax offices and other service delivery points. These cuts are seriously damaging the basic provision of public services.

Recently in Stirling, churches gave out 134 food vouchers people who were entitled to social security payments, but couldn’t get them because there weren’t enough staff working in the DWP. Crisis loans, by definition the most urgent social security payment, should be dealt with urgently. They were taking five weeks because of 40,000 civil service job cuts.

And those job cuts mean the government cannot deliver new programmes for the long term unemployed and lone parents. So contracts are given to charities and private sector companies, who will be paid by results. Profit will be made delivering welfare to the most vulnerable and needy people in our society.

After criticising privatisation and outsourcing in central government as a waste of taxpayers’ money, Labour has now privatised and outsourced more work from central government to the private sector than the previous eighteen years of Tory government. We have seen the disgraceful sight of a handful of former senior civil servants enriching themselves to the tune of £40 million from the privatisation of QinetiQ, while hundreds of jobs are to be cut. And yet Gordon Brown reassures the CBI that there will be still more privatisation.

Meanwhile, we have seen embarrassing failures such as the loss of the personal data of Child Benefit recipients blamed on low grade administrative staff rather than the policies of privatisation, de-skilling and job cuts pursued by management under instruction from the government. To cap it all, public servants have been told to expect sub-inflation pay deals for at least the next three years.

Many PCS members need to take a second job, never have a holiday, and worry at night about which bill to pay. Yet they are expected to take pay cuts while billions are paid in city bonuses, and the average pay of the FTSE top 100 directors has risen in a year from two million to 3 million pounds.

Our experience is replicated across health, education, and local government. People are dying of infections in hospitals because they’re not clean due to privatisation and lack of investment. In Belfast, a school built under a PFI contract lasting 25 years will soon shut because of low pupil numbers. However, because the education authority has signed a contract lasting 25 years, it will continue to pay up to £400,000 per year to a contractor to operate a school that will not actually exist.

Some people argue that these examples are just isolated acts of political expediency designed to keep the Tories from regaining the initiative. But they represent a real commitment to free market ideology. It is not surprising that people are rejecting the notion that New Labour is as good as politics can get.

There are two tasks that arise from this. First, in PCS we have had organise and campaign to defend ourselves industrially from the effects of Labour’s policies. In addition to the two days national strike action last year, disputes are flaring up in different parts of our membership with industrial action plans being presented each week.

But the issues we face are common across the public sector. And it is clear to any activist that we need industrial unity to fight the attacks that union members face. When I speak at rallies of public sector trade unionists many of them – lecturers, health workers, teachers, civil servants, local government workers or fire-fighters from across the range of unions – say to me that if the government attacks us all we should collectively stand up and defend ourselves.

For example, the government now tells public sector workers that they are the cause of inflation and public sector pay must be limited to increases of 2%. The response must be to prepare for united, joint action. In 2005 such a response successfully stopped cuts in public sector workers’ pensions. We need that approach again over pay. The impact of all public sector workers on the picket line on the same day would be huge. If they can do it in France, we can do it in the UK.

But, secondly, we need to do more than mount an effective industrial campaign. We need to consider what can be done in the political arena to challenge the new pro-business, anti-welfare state consensus between all three main parties. Without ending that consensus we may win industrial victories but its clear to many trade unionists that won’t stop employers coming back year on year for more cuts, more privatisations and to drive down pay. To make our advances stick, we need political change.

This has led to a growing debate within the trade unions about political representation. When this debate takes place, the question quickly turns to the existing political choices that we have.

When I meet government ministers and raise the problems trade unionists and public sector workers (particularly civil servants) face, the response is the same. I’ve heard it from two of the most senior figures in the government and from some in the TUC General Council – that no matter how bad it is for workers under this Labour government, the Tories would be worse.

Being asked to accept pay cuts, privatisation, and the running down of the welfare state because otherwise we’ll get a Tory government that will cut pay, privatise and destroy the welfare state is ridiculous. It’s a contradiction that must be confronted. Accepting it hamstrings our opposition to the attacks on us. My experience is that more and more workers reject it.

In the unions there is a need to tackle those that say that loyalty to Labour must be our absolute and overriding priority. That is at the heart of everything we are up against. We must make it clear that acceptance of the Labour leadership’s arrogant belief that they can tell us that, no matter what, every five years we will have to vote Labour because otherwise we’ll get the Tories, invites them to become more right wing, more neo-liberal, to make more and more cuts.

My absolute and overriding priority is defending PCS members who are being kicked from pillar to post, regardless of which party is attacking them. I am in no doubt that the 2005 PCS ballot on setting up a political fund was won, in part, because we would not donate to, or affiliate to any political party – including Labour.
We are using the Political Fund in the PCS Make Your Vote Count campaign. This is truly radical because it treats all parties (except the fascists) the same. It gives everybody equal access and allows local candidates to tell their constituents where they stand – on public services, on pay, on privatisation. We then publish the answers, let them speak for themselves and let our members decide where their vote should go. The more we do this, the more pressure it will place on the parties and candidates. In the run up to the council, GLA and mayoral elections in May, we have written to other non-affiliated public sector unions asking them to join us in this. Five have already agreed to do so.

Our Make Your Vote Count campaign is putting a degree of pressure on politicians. But the ‘first past the post’ electoral system works to marginalise those who stand out against the prevailing political consensus. We should be arguing more vocally for proportional representation. A few years ago the Scottish Socialist Party gave us proof that with a fairer electoral system people will vote for radical policies. 6 SSP MSPs were elected in the Scottish Parliament, as well as 5 Greens - meaning 10% of the parliament in Scotland was made up of people who were to the left. If it can happen in Scotland then it can elsewhere. PR would break the stranglehold of the three main parties on political life and give a voice to the millions who want something better.

Even under the existing electoral system we have seen the election of George Galloway as an MP, of Respect councillors in Preston, Derbyshire and in East London, and Socialist and left-wing independent candidates in Coventry, Lambeth and elsewhere. That has given people hope and inspiration.

But these advances are limited in scope. We must recognise that these organisations are not strong enough to challenge the prevailing political consensus.

We have to confront the split nature of the left. On 17 November last year, I found myself speaking to three competing left events in London - the Labour Representation Committee, the Socialist Party and the Respect conference. At all of them I argued that to break the dominance of the pro-business, anti-welfare state consensus we must have unity, both industrially and politically.

Crucially, we need the trade unions to be involved to give us a bedrock on which to build. Already we see the FBU and the RMT, no longer affiliated to Labour, looking around to see how they can take forward issues politically, possibly even standing and supporting candidates. In the North West there is the fantastic prospect of 15 firefighters standing in the local elections.

If we want to make progress, we must accept that the left in the Labour Party have an important role. Some people say that because their position in the Labour Party has been so weakened that John McDonnell could not get on the ballot paper for the leadership contest, they can be dismissed or simply told to leave the party. I believe that is wrong. We must find ways to work together.

For those outside the Labour Party, this means confronting the narrow mindedness which fails to recognise that candidates such as John McDonnell, consistent opponents of the policies of privatisation and cuts, must be supported. As Chair of the PCS Parliamentary Group he has been a staunch supporter of our campaigns. It would be inconceivable for us to turn our backs on him or his supporters.

Similarly, those on the Labour left must deal with the situation whereby they are expected to vote for every Labour candidate regardless of their politics or face expulsion. For example, we see Bob Wareing, a principled Liverpool MP who stood against the war being prepared to stand as an independent after having Steven Twigg, of all people, imposed as New Labour candidate in a working class Merseyside constituency. Every socialist must surely know who to vote for in that contest.

Our loyalty must be to our class, not to our party card.
Now is the time to take the debate in the trade union movement a step forward. We must reject the idea of blind support for New Labour regardless of the consequences for workers and the general public. We must organise industrial resistance to job losses, pay cuts, and privatisation which unites workers in different unions. And we must ask how we can seriously address the question of how we can develop a credible alternative to the political consensus offered by the main parties. What unites us is far greater than what divides us. The task for those who share this analysis is to make it a reality.