Potted History of PCS Left Unity

38 years ago, I started my job in what was then the DHSS and joined the union which was then CPSA. I got active in it very quickly.   Like most unions, there was a left and a right, but in reality, not a great deal of difference. However this was about to change, as in 1977 (35 years ago) the “Broad Left” was opened up to rank and file activists. The Right-wing group was known as the “Moderates”, but there was nothing moderate about them! They were on the hard right of the Trade Union movement. They controlled the National Committee and were suspected of being funded by various fronts for the USA and UK intelligence services.

The Broad Left quickly grew from a clique of individuals on the National Executive Committee and a handful of supporters, into an open democratic organisation with members everywhere. We developed policies which we brought to the CPSA conference. Unfortunately, we were unable to convert support for our policies into votes for the National Executive Committee, and so our policies were ignored by the leadership. Of course, this just made other conference delegates angry, and so the Broad Left grew. What follows are some highlights of the issues that shaped the left in PCS today.

Note that much more has gone on, such as sacking of activists, often we believe with the collaboration of the union’s right wing. But this has always resulted in more activists popping up to take their place. If readers want to send me stuff to add to this article I’ll definitely consider it and refine it over time.

Terry Adams Defence Campaign

Over the years we had to fight these so-called Moderates. There were no depths to which they would not plumb, in order to control the union. The first of these, in 1978 I think, was the attempt to dismiss Terry Adams. Terry, then, was a new, young, left-wing full time negotiator who had just led a group of overseas members, working for the Ministry of Defence in Gibraltar, to a spectacular victory. When his probationary year was up, they tried to sack him for being “too enthusiastic” and “unprofessional”. This led to a huge reaction from activists, who rallied around Terry, Many members from Gibraltar came to lobby the conference for him. I remember helping them with campaign materials and putting one of them up. The campaign increased the Broad Left’s profile among activists, and Terry was re-instated.

The Broad Left Split

In 1983/84 we managed to win the NEC elections, however, the majority of the NEC let a group of members down badly when they refused to support a group of members in dispute over shift payments. Rather than face the music at the 1984 Broad Left conference, they walked out to form another group. But in truth this led to a further hardening of the left in CPSA. The worst opportunists carried on their journey to the right wing. Others came back over time.

Newcastle Eight

Wind ahead to the late eighties, and the Newcastle 8. These were Branch Officers in a large branch of the union, which supported the Broad Left. They were accused of misappropriating members’ money, and evidence was fabricated. Simple really, a list of people who paid for an unofficial leaflet (to support Broad Left candidates in an election) was removed from a copy of the leaflet, and this was presented as evidence that it had been paid for out of Branch Funds. They were expelled from CPSA, but this was later overturned by the 1990 conference, who decided “no penalty”.

Merger to form PCS

When CPSA and PTC merged to form PCS, the executives of the unions had ignored their conferences and drafted a rule book which made it difficult to change the rules even if the conference voted unanimously on a change to the principal rules. If the National Committee didn’t like it, they could get it overturned in a ballot of members who would of course see only their point of view. The Right Wing did this more than once. They didn’t realise the fact that their shenanigans over the years, in CPSA, had produced a tough opposition that wouldn’t go away. (The old CPSA Broad Left linked up with other left groups from the PTC to form Left Unity.) The Right Wing obviously thought we were all just professional troublemakers and would get fed up and go somewhere else. Wrong. We were and are committed trade unionists whose activism came from a genuine concern about our members’ pay and conditions, and our wider view of how they are affected by society as a whole. The more the Right Wing tried to ignore the policies decided by delegates at the conference, the more the delegates rejected the Right Wing. But the postal ballots were something else. Most members didn’t see first hand what went on, and the Right Wing managed to get elected to the NEC year on year.

General Secretary Ballot

Then in December 2000, a ballot was held for the person who would take over as General Secretary from 1st June 2002, there were two candidates, Mark Serwotka and Hugh Lanning. Barry Reamsbottom didn’t get enough nominations, but just to make sure, a compromise agreement was signed with him to stop him standing or claiming that he should have been allowed to stand. Lanning’s vote of 33,942 would have walked most elections in PCS, but Serwotka’s 40,740 was stunning! What I remember about both campaigns were that they were very clean – no red scares or attacking the opponent, just saying what each candidate believed in and saw as the way forward for the union. I think that helped the high participation.

The Right Wing “Coup”

Forward to the NEC elections, May 2002. Finally the right wing’s majority was dented (but they still had a majority, and Janice Godrich, of Left Unity, was elected as National President. However, an NEC meeting was convened after conference (without sufficient notice, either of the meeting or the business to be discussed) and armed with a letter from a solicitor, the right wing moved that Janice leaves the chair and that Mark Serwotka’s election is null and void, and that Barry Reamsbottom will continue. After litigation and a huge cost to the union, the courts ruled in Mark’s favour, and the activists fell even more decisively behind Left Unity. Janice Godrich increased her majority as President in 2003, and we got a Democracy Alliance (Left Unity + PCS Democrats) victory on the NEC, something which has been repeated every year since. The Moderates were no longer unassailable, and their arrogance cost them dear.

The Right Wing don’t call themselves The Moderates any more. They try to deny their links to their disgraceful past, particularly of 2002. They call themselves “4themembers”. When you see their election literature, don’t be fooled.

Where we are today

PCS has got itself in the position to lead the fightback in the Trade Union movement, thanks to the work put in by the Broad Left and Left Unity since around 1977. Our experience is there, for others to use. We can’t wait another 35 years for other unions to follow suit, left activists in those unions must draw on our experiences so that they can get the job done a lot quicker!

The fightback on Pensions, and the alternative economic strategy, led by PCS within the Trade Union movement, owes itself to the work that we all put in over the 35 years. Had we not been hardened by the setbacks, had we not accumulated wisdom and patience, and passed it on to the next generations of activists in PCS, who have willingly taken up the baton, things might be different. Now PCS is a beacon to the whole trade union movement, but it didn’t happen by accident. It took years of work.

6 responses

  1. Lucia Collins | Reply

    Dave, can I share on facebook? This right wing treachery is ongoing in NIPSA as we speak and i see how PCS left Unity have had the courage of their convictions to persevere and make PCS what it is today, i am so proud to be friends with so many comrades and i intend to speak to my NIPSA broad left comrades to expose the hypocrisy that is destroying the NIPSA I know at present!

  2. Of course you can! It’s a public site, copy it, link to it, no problem at all!

  3. Re: General Secretary Ballot. You neglected to mention that Lanning was the official Left Unity candidate, Serwotka having been eliminated in an earlier round. He stood as a “maverick” independent candidate which did not go down very well with the LU leadership. The right wing vote swung behind Serwotka just to give the official LU candidate a bloody nose. LU still cannot control Serwotka, and neither can he control them. There are idealogical differences between the Socialist Party that dominates the leadership of LU and Serwotka’s brand of far left politics which often do not coincide.

  4. Prior to the General Secretary election in 2000, Left Unity had sought a compromise candidate to oppose Reamsbottom. The Right wing was still winning elections at the time and a majority felt that it would be foolhardy to split the Anti-Reamsbottom vote. However a minority didn’t agree with this view and in the absence of what they saw as a “real” LU candidate, they supported Mark Serwotka. When Reamsbottom failed to secure sufficient nominations, LU decided to vote for Mark – I remember this being circulated by the LU Secretary Alan Runswick at the time.

    I don’t, however, think that this was a decisive incident in the development of PCS, that is clearly what happened when Reamsbottom and his supporters tried to prevent Mark taking up the post, which is what I’ve outlined in what was meant to be a very brief and potted summary.

  5. Cath mcwilliams | Reply

    Hi, dave, I was a member of CPSA till 2000. I thank you for the memories. Is there anywhwere I can get more written stuff about the Newcastle 8? Cath Carroll

    1. Sorry, not that I know of.

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