PCS members responded enthusiastically to the 15 March national strike (Picture: Guy Smallman) Those pictured do not necessarily support the views in this article

Socialist Workers Party members were among the founder members of Left Unity (LU) in the PCS over 20 years ago. Here we explain why we have decided not to support LU’s candidate in the general secretary election and why we have decided to leave Left Unity.                

The cost of living crisis has seen a massive assault on working class living standards, PCS members included. In response, we have seen the biggest wave of strikes in Britain for over 30 years. 

This has been and remains a test for every trade union in Britain. How well can they mobilise their members to fight for decent pay rises and protect their living standards?

The PCS leadership opted for a limited strategy that combined paid selective action interspersed with just three days of national strike action on 1 February, 15 March and 28 April. 

This strategy achieved a limited level of pressure on the government. The government announced in early June an increased pay remit of 4.5-5 percent for 2023-24, up from the original remit of 2 percent. 

In addition a one-off, taxed and non-pensionable, payment of up to £1,500 was announced, allegedly in recognition of the cost of living pressures in 2022. 

But not only was this also pro-rata, so part-time staff receive less, but many members on Universal Credit saw some or even all of it clawed back. The campaign was in effect then suspended by the leadership. 

Any pay award below inflation is a pay cut. Without any strikes it would have been worse, but the PCS leadership seemed set on grasping the first concession by the government and then winding down the action. 

The consultative ballot that took place over August was highly misleading—yes or no to continuing a campaign that in effect no longer existed with strikes “paused”. 

An option to vote to restart—and indeed escalate strikes—was missing.

The so-called “pause” includes a cancellation of the national levy, no renewal of expired strike mandates and a focus on delegated pay bargaining for 2023-24. This can only encourage the government to play hardball over pay and fragments our response. It represents a massive retreat from the aspirations of the PCS 10 percent pay claim.  

SWP members in PCS raised arguments for increasing the scale and frequency of the national action. We pointed to the big, widespread and vibrant picket lines with a whole new generation of younger civil servants at their heart—something the union leadership rightly celebrated.

Yet calls for escalating the level of action, and hence the level of pressure on the government, were dismissed as unrealistic. We believe such arguments reflected the pessimism of the leadership of Left Unity, rather than the real potential to win members to a higher level of action.  

The stakes could not be higher. This is about more than a question of tactics but goes to the heart of the union’s strategy. An opportunity to deliver a major blow against the government and to start to reverse years of pay falling behind inflation in the civil service was missed. 

We believe that the LU leadership has failed the test of the last year and we cannot support the LU candidates for GS and AGS (Fran Heathcote and Paul O’Connor) or remain in Left Unity.  

LU’s retreat

Left Unity was founded over 20 years ago by an alliance of left groups, non-aligned socialists and trade unionists. LU fought back against the undemocratic attempts to depose Mark Serwotka when he was first elected General Secretary of PCS in 2000. Mark stood on a “Vote Socialist” platform. Hundreds of activists organised meetings with members across Britain to expose the coup attempted by the right wing “Moderate” Group.

The defeat of the right wing in the union was near total. Left Unity has campaigned to defend pay, pensions and jobs. Left Unity has seen off many attacks from the Tories and it has won many battles against them in the courts. 

But there has been a sustained retreat from its founding vision and practice as it became entrenched in the union leadership over the past two decades. Signs of an accumulation of conservatism, bureaucratisation and pessimism in the LU leadership were already evident before 2022-23. 

Notably, the “Employee Deal”, negotiated in the DWP, was highly divisive. It effectively sabotaged any prospect of a national pay campaign in 2016 and for several years after as a multi-year departmental deal. It sowed big discrepancies in the terms and conditions of our DWP members, demoralising members in what has been historically the most militant and best organised section of the union.

What’s the way forward?

The central lesson of all the major disputes over the last year and half is that all union leaderships have been willing to pursue only limited action and to settle for below inflation pay deals. This is true of the NEU, CWU, RMT, RCN, UCU and others, as well as the PCS. In response we need a renewed and increased focus on organising from below, independently of union leaderships which can’t be relied on to consistently lead an effective fightback. 

This means a left in our unions that isn’t primarily orientated on internal elections and fighting for bureaucratic control of the unions. Union elections, and who leads the union is not irrelevant of course, but it is not decisive. 

The PCS needs a better left. The BLN and IL have in practice adopted an electoral focus. The SWP is reluctantly calling for a vote for Marion Lloyd, as she has called for more action and rebuilding of the national campaign. However, Lloyd’s grouping, the Socialist Party (now the driving force of the BLN) when it was part of LU had an undistinguished record, for example, playing a central role in the DWP Employee Deal. 

We need to learn from examples like NHS Workers Say No and UCU Solidarity and focus on encouraging grassroots networks that seek to increase the level of confidence, activity and militancy of members, and challenge the union leadership’s limited strategies.

Take politics into the workplace 

We believe that also means developing networks of activists who raise political arguments in the union and most importantly in their own workplace – in defence of refugees, trans people and abortion rights. 

So, for example, PCS banners should be at every counter demo opposing racist mobilisations against refugees and on every Trans pride event. Raising political arguments, whether fighting oppression or arguments over climate change, will also strengthen union organisation and help attract new activists into the PCS.

The SWP also believes challenging increased arms spending and militarisation in Britain and across Europe cannot be done without also challenging the corralling of unions, including PCS, behind the proxy war NATO is fighting in Ukraine. To do so is not to endorse Putin’s brutal invasion but to point to the inter-imperialist nature of the war in Ukraine. 

Again, this is a test that the leadership of LU has failed. 

But it is also why we cannot support John Moloney for AGS, a leading figure in the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign which has backed NATO’s intervention in Ukraine. 

The events of 2022-23 show that a reorganisation of the left inside PCS is now urgent. We need an organisation that is focused on building rank and file struggle from below – and not mainly an election machine. We welcome discussion with any PCS members who agree with this view.


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