The National Executive Committee meeting on 8 July voted to confirm that elections would not happen in 2020, whilst a final decision on Conference has been kicked further down the road.
As with the last meeting, the NEC had a large agenda to get through and most of it wasn’t ultimately heard. Therefore, beyond updates on the national campaign and negotiations related to COVID-19, the substantive discussion was on the elections and Conference.
Members of the PCS Independent Left put motions to the previous NEC asking for elections to be reinstated and some form of Conference to be considered. As those motions weren’t heard, we put amendments forward to the paper that came to this meeting from the General Secretary. Those amendments inevitably fell, with voting on the usual factional lines, and we detail the debate below.
In March, the NEC took the decision to not go ahead with elections (or Conference) as scheduled, on the basis of the then-emerging situation with Covid-19. In particular, we had just gone into lockdown, whilst the shielding period for the clinically vulnerable and extremely vulnerable members had barely begun and many members were also in self-isolation having had a member of their household exhibit symptoms of COVID-19. Although there was some debate, a majority of the NEC including two out of the three IL members on the committee voted in favour of elections not going ahead at that point.
The situation now is different. There are still real and ongoing concerns over the safety of members and the wider working class in relation to the pandemic, and in particular the re-opening of pubs and shops alongside scenes of crowded parks and beaches point towards a second spike in deaths. None of this should be dismissed. What is different is that the Communication Workers Union no longer discourages the sending of non-essential post, the shielding period has ended and those who were doing so can no go outside as long as social distancing is properly observed, and people can have a “social bubble” or meet with other households on the basis of the same precautions.
It is also worth mentioning that receiving a letter in the post, in many cases alongside online shopping deliveries, and popping to the post box to return a ballot paper is not in any way comparable to being asked to return to the office and all the risks that entails. (Online voting is even less comparable!) Just as taking part in the Black Lives Matter protests in the open air, with social distancing in effect, is not comparable to being in an enclosed space such as public transport, a pub, a shop or a workplace, and the increased transmission risk that entails.
It was on this basis that the IL argued for elections to resume. This was important, we argued, as the incumbent NEC only had a mandate for twelve months which has now passed, and with important decisions such as those on the union’s Strategic Objectives ahead of us it is vital that an NEC with a live democratic mandate takes them forward.
Under our proposals, existing nominations would be carried forward (though candidates would get the opportunity to update their election addresses) and the ballot period would begin in earnest with the winners taking up post from the declaration of results. This could, feasibly, allow for a new NEC to take up office for nine months – meaning that disruption of the normal process was minimised to a great extent.
Despite this, we heard that the proposal would undermine negotiations with the employer over avoiding a return to business as usual using the false comparison refuted above. It was argued that there was an increased risk for members, predicated on the conjured notion of armies of leafleters spreading COVID from workplace to workplace. Those of us making the proposal were even, absurdly, compared to Tories and the employer for wanting elections to happen – invoking memories of when we were compared to scab miners for opposing the previous suspension of elections back in 2014.
The main argument, however, was that the timetable for elections (based on re-running the entire process from scratch, despite no proposal for that) would mean the 2021 election cycle would begin before the 2020 cycle was ended. This wasn’t some new, unprecedented information, and would have been known as a possibility when the NEC agreed to not hold the elections as originally planned and keep the matter under review. Yet rather than say at that point that elections were cancelled altogether, that decision was kicked down the road to a later meeting.
This approach will be familiar to many in PCS, with the deferral of decisions in this way used both as a way of doing nothing whilst appearing to act and alternatively as a way to force an outcome by withholding a decision until it can be presented as without alternative. This is why the majority decision taken on Conference leads us to believe that it is unlikely to happen this year.
The decision taken was to explore all the options on whether a virtual conference or “event” was possible and to bring that information back so a future NEC meeting could decide if it goes ahead. This sounds straightforward, but as above is more likely to defer the decision on whether it happens until it is too late to take any other decision than that it doesn’t.
The debate itself also drew out that many of the NEC majority are opposed to a Conference, virtual or otherwise, happening in the current year. The view was that more reps and members participated in the various Zoom meetings and forums that have been happening over the past period and that the logistics of delegates debating and voting by virtual means would be a nightmare.
Being generous, this shows a lack of imagination. Whilst the increase in communications and meetings over the recent period are welcome, it is also notable that these are generally speaking top-down events whereby the leadership conveys its decisions to others but there is nothing in the way of decision making from the ground up or the membership shaping decisions even through the usual, corporate methods of “consultation.”
There would undoubtedly be issues with running Conference virtually in exactly the format it runs as a physical event. However, nobody was suggesting that. The IL proposal was to simply commit that we would have a Conference through virtual means and from there look at how this would be done.
This would also provide an opportunity to look at what could be done differently on a more permanent basis, to improve attendance and participation and to strengthen the direct democracy that in theory is the heart of Conference. Though of course a leadership whose own motions dominate the Conference agenda might not be too favourable towards such a notion. That certain branches going unrepresented and decreasing attendance at Conference were presented as arguments against committing to a virtual Conference but have yet to be the focus of a discussion where we consider how to rectify the issue certainly suggests as much.
The current NEC will therefore retain office until at least May 2021 (assuming that developments in the pandemic later in the year don’t warrant further suspension of processes) and a Conference looks unlikely to happen. Yet the union is faced with its most significant challenges yet not just with the pandemic but with the questions around the future of PCS as a going concern. The latter deserves the most democratic debate and oversight possible. Ensuring that will be a significant challenge in the period ahead.