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Democracy? What does it mean?

0 Comments 12 May 2016

Democracy? What does it mean?

It was last year when I heard Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell (I know, I know: it still sounds ridiculous) speaking about my old union, PCS. PCS was, he said, “one of the most democratic unions in the land”. In some ways, he was right. No union holds more elections that PCS, nor indeed sends more delegates to its conferences. But democratic? Not so sure about that.

PCS is run by a sect so far to the left that Jeremy Corbyn and the comrades on the left fringes of the Labour Party are almost right wing by comparison. The supreme leader, or general secretary as he is formally known, is one Mark Serwotka, who is described as a fully paid up member of the “awkward squad”. That’s probably true as well, but how awkward is he and in what way?

The union of lowly paid civil servants (and MOD staff) has just announced its annual National Executive Committee (NEC) results and to no one’s surprise the Trotskyist Socialist Party (Militant) ‘slate’, laughably known as the Democracy Alliance, has won a large majority. In second place was the other hard left organisation, known as the Independent Left. And that was it. Two hard left political factions and no one else. No conventional left grouping, no centre left grouping, not even a centrist grouping.

“Ah well,” you might say, “it’s the members’ fault. If they didn’t like what was going on, they could stand for election”, and so they can, but the odds are they won’t win.

PCS is controlled from top to bottom by the hard left. It controls the HQ where the full time paid officials are appointed on the basis of their far left politics. Almost all the branches are controlled by the hard left. Even if an ordinary member secured election to a local committee, the chances of her or him rising any further are almost zero. In order to even stand for election for the NEC, a candidate needs other branch nominations. It would be virtually impossible for an ordinary member to stand in a national election.

This is, in essence, “one of the most democratic unions in the land”, but one in which only candidates of one colour can stand for election. It is a union that is deep in financial trouble, not least because of the inept governance of the ruling hard left cabal and last year it was so broke, claimed the comrades, that they couldn’t even afford to hold the annual elections. (The annual conference at which the Trotskyist parties and organisations hold their main fundraising events naturally went ahead. Funny that.)

Serwotka was labelled a member of the “awkward squad” when he appeared on platforms with the late Bob Crow, the railway union boss, but he gained notoriety only by association. Whilst Crow could bring the country to a standstill, Serwotka postured and posed and then drowned in his own fiery, but ultimately vacuous, rhetoric. Year upon year, PCS failed in negotiations allowing a hostile government to trample over its members. It failed with a series of pointless one day strikes too, achieving nothing but losing members’ pay. The civil service began to shrink but the union shrank quicker. With each passing election, with each strike ballot, the numbers participating dwindled. The only people to whom Serwotka was “awkward” was his own members.

Even if you doubt what I have said about the nature of PCS, the trade union equivalent of a failed state, you surely cannot doubt that democratic disaster of today’s election results. Oh, not the re-election of a bunch of timeserving revolutionary socialists because we all expected it, but the turn out.

A decade ago, PCS claimed over 300,000 members but today’s results paint a worrying picture. The current membership figure is 175,038 of whom 16,479 bothered to vote, a 9.4% turn out. Put another way, 90.6% of PCS members did not vote at all. All right, it didn’t matter in terms of politics because, in the absence of candidates other than from the hard left, members had a choice of two hard left slates and no one else. (Actually, that’s not true. There were some ‘independent’ candidates who were not on the Trotskyite lists and they, of course, came last.)

I remain convinced that there is still a place for trade unions. In the main, they do good things. They protect workers’ rights and if things are done properly they can bring about progressive partnerships with employers. The problem is politics.

PCS is riven with politics and its leaders have aims that go way beyond serving union members. They lie in progressing revolutionary politics and ensuring the unions’ hierarchies represent a certain (hard left) viewpoint. That isn’t going to change, ever, because it can’t and it will eventually be the death of the union.

“One of the most democratic unions in the land” means nothing in a union where hardly anyone votes. There is no opposition to the comrades urging anyone to vote for anyone else, or to not vote at all. It is a democratic failure of their own device. They control the union HQ, the paid officers, the NEC and most of the branches and yet, with no opponents, nine out of ten members don’t vote.

The parallel with the Corbyn-led Labour Party could not be more obvious, a union that is run by a relatively small but powerful sect, a union that has not had a meaningful victory for as long as I can remember and a union that is happy to oppose, and indeed pose, because a certain political position matters more than securing improvements for it members.

You can’t have too much democracy provided it actually means something. In PCS, it means next to nothing. And if democracy means nothing, you’re in a lot of trouble.

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