Britain: How can an alternative to the main political parties be developed?

Discussion between Mark Serwoka (General Secretary PCS) and Peter Taaffe (General Secretary, Socialist Party)

General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), in Britain, Mark Serwotka, sent the contribution below to The Socialist, describing the attacks being made on public-sector workers by the government and calling for left unity in opposition to them. Following Mark’s article is a response from Socialist Party General Secretary Peter Taaffe.

How can an alternative to the main political parties be developed?

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 to people who were entitled to social security payments, but couldn’t get them because there weren’t enough staff working in the Department for Work and Pensions (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 three 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 a 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 to 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.

Change needed

Without ending that consensus we may win industrial victories but it’s 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.

PCS approach

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.

Six SSP MSPs were elected in the Scottish Parliament, as well as five 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.

Left unity

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.

Class loyalty

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.

Socialist Party welcomes debate

We very much welcome Mark Serwotka’s article in this issue of The Socialist on a central issue confronting the workers’ movement today: how to lay the foundations now for a new mass political alternative to discredited New Labour?

Peter Taaffe, General Secretary Socialist Party

We hope that his contribution and this reply to some of his points will provoke a lively correspondence and debate in the pages of The Socialist.

Mark presents a devastating picture of the plight of PCS members, public-sector workers and working-class people as a whole. On privatisation, the assault on public-sector workers’ pay and conditions, attacks on the poor, lone parents and the disabled, etc, New Labour has demonstrated that it has no connection with the Labour Party of the past.

Whatever shortcomings the Labour Party had – a pro-capitalist leadership – it was nevertheless a working-class party at its base. That has gone as Blair and Brown’s New Labour has transformed it into another capitalist party.

Mark is right when he writes: “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.” Thatcher’s doctrine, ‘there is no alternative’, has been adopted by Brown and New Labour. And they will continue to get away with it unless challenged from the left, which is impossible inside New Labour.

German Left party

In Germany, the setting up of the Left party means that the leaders of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) have to ‘look over their shoulder’ at a rival political force. Accordingly, they have been compelled to retreat on attacks which they themselves voted for previously, for fear of ‘playing into the hands of the Left party’.

The Left party has now extended its base, previously largely in the East, with significant support now in a number of states (Lander) in the West. It is not perfect from a socialist, let alone a Marxist, point of view, but it does present an alternative point of reference for working-class people. It acts as a ‘check’ to some extent at least, on the pro-capitalist SPD.

But we have no such alternative in Britain as yet. Unfortunately, Mark, while making some useful suggestions, has not set out a strategy to create such a force in Britain. The Socialist Party, and particularly Socialist Party members in the PCS who have a considerable influence, support the union’s initiative ‘Make Your Vote Count’.

This campaign is good as far as it goes; it puts election candidates on the spot. But it does not automatically pose a clear alternative to capitalist parties and politicians once they have demonstrated their preparedness to continue attacks on the rights and conditions of public-sector workers and others.

That alternative is a new mass workers’ party which Mark recognises, by implication, is popular when he writes: “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.” Why not then suggest that those unions still tied to Labour should immediately disaffiliate and join in the campaign for a new party?

He makes a plea that “We must accept that the left in the Labour Party have an important role.” In particular, he praises John McDonnell and argues he cannot “be dismissed or simply told to leave the party”.

The Labour left, certainly at rank-and-file level in the Labour Party, is insignificant. Labour MPs such as John McDonnell and ex-MPs like Tony Benn still have political authority but one that can diminish in the stormy events that impend in Britain if they insist on clinging to the battered wreckage of the Labour Party. We are prepared to work with the Labour left on resisting attacks, the need to repeal anti-union legislation, etc. But we will also criticise them.

It is correct for the PCS to utilise all left parliamentary support to enhance its campaigns and its position in parliament. Before the formation of the Labour Party the unions utilised sections of the Lib-Lab MPs in a similar role.

This did not prevent the pioneers of the Labour Party from criticising these very same Lib-Labs for propping up the Liberal Party as a bulwark of capitalism. John McDonnell, imprisoned in New Labour, is reduced to smuggling out protest notes through the bars.

Despite our disagreements with his stance, Socialist Party members in the trade unions nevertheless supported him in the deputy leadership contest. At the same time, we said in advance that his campaign was unfortunately unlikely to succeed and, if this turned out to be the case, he should draw all the necessary political conclusions. This would involve not ‘simply’ leaving New Labour but at the same time joining with other left forces in laying the foundations of a new party.

Ponder the ludicrous position which John McDonnell and Tony Benn will be in when they address a meeting in Newham in defence of the Unison branch chairperson Michael Gavan who has been sacked by the New Labour council.

They will no doubt denounce the council and, hopefully, support industrial action for his reinstatement. But given their present advocacy of remaining within New Labour, they will then set their faces against those who advocate the withdrawal of union funds. The right-wing New Labour gang on the council have orchestrated these attacks.

Tony Benn and John McDonnell also oppose the suggestion that workers should be prepared to stand against New Labour. Mark should be pointing out the contradictions in their positions, which with each rightward move of New Labour makes their position more and more untenable.

On what the left should do now, Mark writes: “We have to confront the split nature of the left… I argued that to break the dominance of the pro-business, anti-welfare state consensus we must have unity, both industrially and politically.” He could have added that we also need honesty and tolerance in order to get a pre-party, never mind a party itself, off the ground.

Unfortunately, it is our experience – and not us alone, as the recent split in Respect has demonstrated – that the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), one of the organisations he appeals to, is incapable in our experience of acting in a principled, honest fashion. Experience has shown they will not accept proposals which would facilitate the unity on the left which Mark says is “far greater than what divides us”.

For instance, the SWP opposed the federal principle in the Socialist Alliance – which the Socialist Party initially set up – in order to impose its own agenda by force of numbers on this organisation.

Inevitably, this project failed, as did the Socialist Labour Party earlier because of the similar sectarian intolerance of Arthur Scargill and his supporters. The SWP adopted the same approach towards Respect when it was initially founded.

The Socialist Party was prepared to discuss and consider participation if this body rejected the ‘winner takes all’ proposals of the SWP. Unfortunately, they were accepted by George Galloway and his supporters which, no doubt, they now lament.


The same ‘rule or ruin’ attitude is adopted by the SWP in the trade union field and is combined here with their habitual distortion of their left opponents’ views. As we reported in The Socialist issue 517, they have conspired with the ‘left’ in the NUT to remove a Socialist Party member from the National Executive. This was for daring to criticise the equivocation of both right and left on the issue of industrial action by teachers against the 2% pay limit.

As bad, is the SWP’s method of falsifying what has taken place in the PCS, particularly when it involves Socialist Party members, most recently over organising common industrial action between the CWU and the PCS. Mark has rejected the written assertion of the SWP that the “Socialist Party dominated executive” was instrumental in the PCS in allegedly pressurising “Mark Serwotka to back away from such a move, and he felt he had to go along with them”.

Nevertheless, we would support all steps of genuine organisations, of groups of workers and in particular the trade unions in taking initiatives to lay the foundations for a new party.

Mark is right when he writes: “In the North West there is the fantastic prospect of 15 FBU members standing in the local elections.” This could and should be replicated in every area, particularly as New Labour will probably be compelled by the looming economic crisis to launch further attacks on public expenditure – which will bear down heavily on PCS members – and on local council workers.

The possibility of a myriad number of campaigns coming together at district, regional and national levels can be posed in the next period. This would be boosted if authoritative left trade union leaders back this up with a firm call to begin now to organise a new mass workers’ party. Mark Serwotka should approach other left general secretaries with firm proposals for a conference to launch such an initiative.

In view of the recent failures to establish a firm basis for a new party, there are bound to be some misgivings by Mark and other union leaders about whether a new initiative will succeed this time.

This should not be a reason to postpone an initiative but to learn from these failures and ensure structures will be put in place to avoid repeating similar mistakes.

But to begin the process it is not necessary to immediately commit every union officially to this project. It may be sufficient initially for a number of trade union leaders to personally make the call and to urge every trade unionist to join such a formation through a campaign. Later, the unions could, through a campaign, be committed to join. The union leaders should be closely involved with ensuring that whatever structures are proposed, they are open and inclusive.

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