Monday, 7 February 2011

A review of the PCS Young Members Forum

Over the weekend, I attended the PCS Young Members Forum. Those who follow me on Twitter will have seen me hint at some of the discussion that took place there - and the amount of boozing we did. Whilst I want to gloss over the latter, here I'm going to explore the former in a bit more depth.

The forum is the annual gathering for the union's Young Members Network. In essence, the network exists both to link up young activists in different areas and coordinate their activities and to encourage other young people to get more involved in trade union activity. It is still a relatively new network, though it is growing rapidly. There are some issues with in how it is organised (which I'll come to), but I'm involved because seeing a decentralised, democratic network of rank-and-file activists evolve within traditionally top-down union structures is definitely a positive sign.

The forum itself, which took place in Manchester, is where the election of officers to the national committee either takes place or (if there is only one candidate) is announced. It is also where members from the different regions in the network draw up their regional action plans for the coming year.

The latter point is one that I'm particularly wary of. Any network of activists needs to be built on is the initiative of the rank-and-file. Whilst there isn't anything wrong with agreeing strategies for any given scenario, an "action plan" is much more proscriptive and  binding. Especially if those making it at the forum don't turn out to be those implementing it, as can be inevitable given that the network is defined by age. Thus, though it takes on the appearance of something built from below, it is still very top-down in practice. This is doubly true given that this process was given 30 minutes at the end of the weekend.

Much more preferable, as I pointed out to my regional convenor and others in the course of discussions, would be greater decentralisation and regional/area autonomy. However, this isn't something that can be written into an action plan. By its very nature, it has to happen despite the instructions coming from above, rather than in compliance with them.

The bulk of the weekend was taken up by workshops. Basically, at each session, we'd split into four groups to cover various topics and each group would do a brief report back. Overall, these seemed to be interesting and useful to most people who took part.

The only one which could have been much improved, in my opinion, was the one on "building a community campaign."

For potentially such a wide-ranging topic, the focus of the event was so narrow that - after a talk on Youth Fight for Jobs  and one on trades councils - we were offered the choice of either planning what we'd do in the two weeks leading up to a demonstration or what you'd put on a leaflet. (Yes. Really.) It was only after a muted response and some suggestions to the group that the question of how to sett up such a campaign was added to our options.

My own attempts to introduce some debate on this subject didn't gain much ground. The question of direct action was seen as something that would put off families, and even practical issues such as producing bust cards so anybody arrested isn't left high and dry were dismissed as something that would "scare people away." Thus, I concluded, we could only discuss setting up a community campaign if said campaign had no objectives beyond protesting in the way that has seen local councils across the country vote in favour of cuts unperturbed by the people waving placards about outside.

Less frustrating was the centre-piece of Saturday's agenda - a panel discussion on the best way to fight the cuts.

As it began, I voiced quite heavy cynicism on Twitter. For a variety of reasons, I don't think that you can have a genuinely open debate in that kind of "top table" set-up. Not least because it's a visible expression of hierarchy and top-down leadership. In essence, it is one step from Question Time, where everyone who is not a "leader" is just an "audience member" here to validate the platform for the elite few.

Nonetheless, despite these limitations, there was scope for some healthy debate. In particular, when one of the panel - press secretary for the Leeds University Occupation - said that the TUC should "call a one-day general strike," I was able to come back on it. I pointed out that the TUC will never call any such thing, and that if we wanted it there would have to be a lot of leg-work behind it. Not only would a lot of building from below be necessary, but we would have to recognise that most workplaces are unorganised and that any such thing would have to happen in tandem with economic blockades. After all, the working class have power as consumers as well as producers.

This then led to Alex Gordon, President of the RMT and ex-SolFed member, reiterating my point that "we will have to break the law" in regards to strike action. Though he did miss the point somewhat when responding to the point on economic blockades, going on a tangent to advocate caution with regards to UK Uncut, particularly because of their mistaken advocacy of John Lewis - which I dissected here.

The limitations of the panel forum came through in other areas, such as time constraints and the preceding speeches leaving little room for proper back-and-forth debate as opposed to soundbite "contributions." Thus, although nobody directly came back on my argument that we will not defeat the cuts through lobbying or winning an argument, people soon drifted back to talking about winning that argument as if the point were never made. I think it also meant that the loud pricks with pre-determined agendas (yes, that includes me) dominated the floor whilst the less experienced had little opportunity to formulate their own opinions through more direct and open questioning. Not to mention the daunting prospect of standing up and putting your neck on the block in order to get your point across.

Despite this, the debate was interesting. And there is a lot of untapped potential in the network. But tapping it involves tackling the tension of the theoretically libertarian network layout being propped up by the traditional structures of the trade union bureaucracy.

We can only do that by being involved, and by actively arguing for that different way of doing things. I spent a lot of time at the forum arguing with one rep, in particular, who is wary of anarchist ideas because she views anarchists as little more than hostile hecklers. Of course, part of this is misconception. But that is fed into by the fact that most anarchists that other activists will come into contact with will fit into a peurile stereotype.

For example, she cited a conversation with one "anarchist" who often talked about the problems with the present system but was vague on what they wanted in its place. This brought in a newer activist who added that they weren't sure that what I believed in was viable. Despite this particular conversation taking place at 4am, and me having downed more than my fair share of vodka, I was able to explain self-management, direct democracy, and federalism in a way that had him nodding - not only in some agreement, but also understanding.

At the moment, for every anarcho-syndicalist who can articulate what they stand for in plain English, there are at least fine pseudo-intellectual hippy dweebs who've labelled themselves anarchists because it sounds cool. We need to make sure we, not they, are the face of anarchism other activists and working class people are exposed to.

Ultimately, the PCS Young Members Forum wasn't a model of libertarian organising. But it was never going to be. The point is that it is the focal point of a network which, for its faults, is drawing more of the rank-and-file into action.

As part of that rank-and-file, those of us who believe in a working class movement led from below need to support such initiatives. But we should also not be afraid to speak up where there are faults, and to push the democratic mass participation at the expense of the bureaucracy.