Towards uncontested elections in HMRC?

This year’s HMRC Group Executive Committee elections ultimately come down to one person. This is not the sign of a healthy trade union democracy, and it is proof that we need to build a viable opposition within the Group.

The President, Deputy President, Treasurer and Deputy Group Secretary positions have all been elected unopposed. Nine candidates are going for eight Assistant Group Secretary positions and twenty one candidates are going for nineteen GEC positions. With two of the candidates standing for both positions, we’re ultimately left with a scenario where at most one single candidate will not get a position. If this doesn’t worry you, you should think again.

Firstly, from a democratic perspective, what it shows is the continued dominance of Left Unity over the Group.

The right wing has all but collapsed, between those now involved with ARC and their efforts to poach HO and SO members through Keystone, and those flailing in the broken ruins of their failed scab union RCTU. Nobody will mourn their leaving, since what they stood for was toxic – ‘partnership’ with the bosses at the expense of members’ interests and resistance to any efforts to make things better for those on the lowest grades in HMRC.

But this doesn’t mean that members are fully behind and content with the leadership. The first clue to that is the continual low turnout in GEC elections. The second is the discontent from branches, who have for years been pushing for a more proactive response to everything from PMR to BOF to Privatisation, and seen Conference mandates ignored or actively defied.

This year, a majority of the motions on Attendance Management are critical of the GEC’s response. They are right to be. It is appalling in the first place that the GEC wasn’t allowed to debate its position on the policy until the day after it was enacted, worse that the original recommendation was to ‘note’ the policy and neither support nor oppose it. Even when the right decision was taken, to oppose the policy and campaign against it*, the progress of this slowed to an absolute crawl and from the motions it is clear that branches feel left in the lurch by the GEC on this issue.

But discontent with the GEC over the past few years has manifested, more than anything, in apathy. Less and less challengers for the positions available and in some areas a feeling of helplessness. This has the potential to empower Left Unity to keep ignoring Conference and steamrollering over the wishes of branches as it sees fit.

The other problem with the lack of challenge to GEC positions beyond democracy is the question of a ‘reserve list’. For a number of years now, it has been the case that not everyone elected onto the committee finishes out the year, and their replacements are drawn from the unsuccessful candidates.

There are a number of reasons that people drop off the GEC, all entirely legitimate. It is a lot of work, and where people already have external pressures upon them at work and at home the potential mental health impacts can be severe. This is not something to be sniffed at and although it is beyond the scope of this piece it is something the union needs to look at and put support in place for.

But when those in reserve are called on, again for a variety of reasons, they may not wish to take up the post part way through the year. So the call up will go to the next person down the list, and so on.

This year, the list was small enough that the lowest polling candidates were contacted to take up positions. Next year, the list will only be single person – or perhaps nobody, if the single person not elected was standing for an AGS position and therefore cannot be called up as an ordinary GEC member. What then? Do we just watch the GEC collapse with the domino effect of increasing workloads and the resulting stress? Hopefully not, but the lack of challengers makes that a serious risk.

No matter who runs the union, it is vital for democracy and open debate that there is an opposition. We would argue that it is also vital that this opposition stands to the leadership’s left; those running the union should face the pressure to increase grassroots participation, to effectively oppose attacks on our pay and conditions and to fight for better, rather than to be more cosy with management and to compromise more as a right wing opposition might argue.

In the past year, despite being a minority the Independent Left have had an influence. This includes passing a strategy paper on organising outsourced workers and pushing for outright opposition to the new Attendance Management policy, alongside the day-to-day work of supporting branches and challenging senior management.

The Independent Left stands for –

Members’ control – the members are the union, and it is they who should be in control. We stand for a GEC that follows Conference policy, that gives its full backing to branch activity and that will fight on the issues that matter to members, such as pay.

Accountability – negotiations with management should be conducted in the light of day. Members deserve to know what those they elect are saying on their behalf and have input on the positions that they take with the bosses.

Creative, effective campaigning – we need to be unafraid to take action where we can deliver it. This doesn’t mean not doing anything if we can’t take the entire Group out, or putting the onus on individual branches. The GEC needs to look at all the possibilities for action – from the whole group to a wide cross section of branches to specific sections of the department – and act on them where the mood exists and we can cause disruption.

One workplace, one union – cleaners working for ISS won back hours they had lost through well supported industrial action. Staff outsourced to Concentrix kept their jobs when PCS demanded they be brought in-house. We believe that all staff who work on the HMRC estate and/or HMRC contracts deserve an equality of pay and conditions, and that they should all be directly employed rather than outsourced to the lowest bidder.

Organised from the ground up – whether or not we manage to get onto the GEC, the same challenges face our Group. That is why we’re committed to pushing for effective campaigns no matter what position we’re in and to helping to organise and build the strongest union possible. We believe all committed trade unionists should be engaged in this activity.

If you agree with what we stand for, then why not join the Independent Left and help us build the opposition that PCS in HMRC sorely needs?

Phil Dickens is an Independent Left member standing for Assistant Group Secretary and re-election to the GEC. Please consider giving him your vote.

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