‘The most disgraceful defeat’

PCS capitulation on pension scheme

‘No revolutionist who weighs his words will contend that a victory would have been guaranteed by proceeding along this line. But a victory was possible only on this road. A defeat on this road was a defeat on a road that could lead later to victory. Such a defeat educates, that is, strengthens the revolutionary ideas in the working class.’

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‘The gravest and most disgraceful defeat which has the most fatal consequences for the movement is the typically Menshevist defeat, due to a false estimate of the classes, an underestimation of the revolutionary factors, and an idealization of the enemy forces.’
(Third International After Lenin, Leon Trotsky)

In October 2004, as the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) faced the prospect of vicious attacks by Tony Blair’s Labour government, the Socialist Party (SP) robustly declared:

‘Only strike action of the most determined kind ... can stop the government in its tracks.... [T]o accept or acquiesce to the cuts that are being proposed would be a gross betrayal not just of the present workforce but, particularly, of future generations. A fighting left trade union leadership – with Socialist Party members playing a key role – is determined to mobilise union members in strike action to resist the government's plans.’
(Socialism Today, October 2004)

But when push came to shove, the ‘fighting left trade union leadership’ did not fight, nor did it even pretend to fight – instead it rolled over and played dead. In October 2005, a year after promising a fight that would ‘stop the government in its tracks’, Socialist Party supporters on the PCS executive joined the rest of the bureaucrats in accepting a shameful two-tier pension scheme for workers in the civil service which requires new starters to work an extra five years (to age 65) before they qualify for a full pension. In agreeing to this, the PCS leadership, and its backers in the ‘revolutionary’ SP, betrayed both current and future union members and added momentum to the employer offensive against pension rights.

What makes this sell-out particularly odious is that in February 2005 public-sector workers had responded to government threats by voting overwhelmingly in favour of striking. Instead of pushing ahead with militant action at a time when the government’s position was weak (because of anxiety to avoid conflict just before the May general election) the ‘fighting lefts’ running the PCS called off the strike on an empty promise of further discussion. The SP leadership absurdly described this flinch as a ‘major victory’, and claimed that the government had ‘...caved-in [in] such a way that will give workers confidence that they can win and force a complete retreat from the government over their plans to raise the retirement age for public-sector workers from 60-65 and worsen their pension entitlement’ (Socialist, 19 March 2005).

The decision to pull the plug on a strike, far from ‘giving workers confidence’, only demoralized them and resulted in the more timid and politically backward elements rethinking their previous willingness to strike. Every union member understood that Labour’s electoral victory in May strengthened the government’s hand in the subsequent negotiations. When the ‘militant’ leadership announced its capitulation on the two-tier issue in October 2005 they sought to circumvent any possibility of resistance from the base by taking the precaution of neither organising a discussion within the membership nor putting the sell-out to a vote. (It is significant that in early January 2006, in response to continuing attacks, the PCS announced that its members in the Department for Work and Pensions in Jobcentres, benefit offices, pension centres, as well as the Child Support Agency, have again voted in favour of strike action to resist job cuts.)

If pro-strike sentiment had indeed declined by October 2005 it stands to reason that this was a result of the refusal of the union leaders to act decisively seven months earlier when the situation was most favourable. As Trotsky observed, reformist misleaders and fake socialists always tend to ascribe their own passivity and cowardice to the backwardness of the workers. And so it was with the PCS, as the SP leadership cynically blamed the membership for the defeat:

‘For the PCS, along with other unions, to reject the deal now means going back to the members to argue for strike action to defend future new starters in the civil service. Sometimes it's necessary to put down a marker for the future and go to the membership even if you expect to lose. But in this case most members would say: “We hear what you say about future members but to ask us to take strike action now when we have kept our arrangements intact seems a step too far.” Under these circumstances it's unlikely a vote for strike action would be successful.'
(Socialist, 27 October 2005)

Even after this capitulation the SP is still congratulating itself for helping PCS chief Mark Serwotka ‘avoid the mistakes’ of other left bureaucrats:

`Mark Serwotka, of the civil service Public Commercial and Services union (PCS), has battled successfully against the government's attacks. With a majority of socialists on the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the union, including ten members of the Socialist Party, he has managed to avoid the mistakes of some other members of the awkward squad. There is no guarantee that even the best left leaders will not be forced to retreat under certain circumstances but the difference for Mark, unlike most of the others, is the existence of Left Unity in the union, an open, rank-and-file, democratic broad left.'
(`Whatever happened to the awkward squad?' Socialism Today, December 2005/January 2006)

The SP and Left Unity (LU), which it dominates, act as open apologists for the PCS leadership. While denouncing any notion of fighting the bosses’ two-tier wedge as an ‘ultra-left adventure’, the SP leaders grotesquely advertise the PCS sell-out as a demonstration of ‘socialist leadership’:

`At the LU conference, 80% of the delegates voted with the leadership and endorsed the actions of the NEC and Mark Serwotka.... The fact that it supported the [two-tier] deal is an indication that the socialist leadership of the union has proved itself in battle. Based on years of experience, they are not afraid to face up to the bosses or to map out the necessary steps to take the struggle forward... They have demonstrated that they are prepared to give a lead to the members and are not prepared to go on ultra-left adventures which can only benefit the interests of the bosses.'
(Socialist, 8-14 December 2005)

It is hardly surprising that the reformist leaders of the Socialist Party, who have repeatedly insisted that cops and prison guards are simply ‘workers in uniform’, are unable to draw the class line when it comes to the PCS’ Immigration Staff Branch - much of which is composed of state immigration police. The PCS website provides the following description of their role in enforcing the government’s racist immigration laws:

‘Ashley and his colleagues operate at the sharp end of the asylum system; arresting and removing failed asylum seekers. These are the cases that have come to the end of the line; turned down by the Home Office they reside in Britain illegally... Six months into his job [as an] enforcement officer, Ashley is enjoying the close-knit team atmosphere and says he has made friends for life – no bad thing when you may have to rely on your co-workers to keep you safe. Since the killing of police officer, Stephen Oake, earlier this year during an arrest, PCS has worked hard to ensure all immigration officers have stab vests.’

Police, prison guards and immigration cops have no place in the trade union movement! The task of socialists in the unions is to illustrate the connection between the immediate, felt needs of the workers and the necessity to overturn the entire system of capitalist exploitation and create a society in which those who labour rule. An essential element of defeating the hegemony of reformism in the working class is to draw a hard class line against the presence of agents of capitalist repression within the workers’ movement.

Revolutionaries in the unions must of course be prepared to make tactical compromises, and join with reformists, bureaucrats and other workers in limited struggles to win or defend partial gains. But in every situation Marxists are distinguished by their ability to call things by their right names. The SP leadership’s willingness to label defeats as victories, to praise leaders who shrink from combat when the situation is favourable and to blame the union rank and file for the betrayals of the bureaucrats demonstrates that it is unworthy of leading the working class.

Socialist Party members who are serious about the struggle to build a genuinely revolutionary workers’ party must break with the defeatist opportunism of their leadership and embrace the authentically Trotskyist tradition upheld by the International Bolshevik Tendency. Only those who are prepared to ‘speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter’, will ever be able to play a role in forging a revolutionary combat party to lead a successful overthrow of the capitalist system of oppression and exploitation.

Published 21 January 2006 as a British supplement to 1917, with:
For a New, Revolutionary, Workers’ Party! Why we’re not signing the Socialist Party’s ‘Declaration’

Posted: 24 January 2006

Also reprinted in Marxism vs 'Militant' Reformism