Mark Serwotka on a new spirit of co-operation

mark_serwotka17:21 Monday 14th September 2015 BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS MANN: More now on the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader. He spent his first day fighting for the unions. He’ll be opposing Government plans to tighten the law on strike ballots and industrial action. I got reaction to that and to his election from Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of one of the country’s biggest unions, the Public and Commercial Services, PCS.
MARK SERWOTKA: I’m very excited about Jeremy’s election, not just because of the margin of his win, but because he’s enthused so many people in actually putting forward a very different set of policies to the people of this country, something very different from what we’ve had for many many years. And I think that’s got to be a really good thing for those who want to see a very different kind of society.
CHRIS MANN: Of course the extraordinary thing is he struggled to get enough MPs nominating him, but there were the Party members, who elected him as you say with an overwhelming majority. That suggests a very split party, the views of the MPs not reflecting those of the membership.
MARK SERWOTKA: Well I think it does raise the question of whether the MPs are entirely in tune with the membership, and those who voted to support Jeremy through the registration scheme. But of course in the last twenty years in politics the Labour MPs in Parliament have actually been forced to conduct a debate with the Conservatives along very narrow lines. Austerity against austerity lite. What Jeremy offered was a very different economic strategy, one that is about a more equal society, that is against cuts in benefits for the poorest, that is for people paying tax when they are rich or a corporation. And we haven’t really had that in Parliament for years. So I think the fact that people will now be offered something so very different will electrify politics in Britain, which is why I don’t think David Cameron is happy about Jeremy’s election whatsoever. I think he’ll be quite worried about it.
CHRIS MANN: And it’s a long time isn’t it since the unions really cosied up to Labour. There was a suspicion wasn’t there between the two since Tony Blair took over. So is it beer and sandwiches again?

MARK SERWOTKA: Well I don’t know about beer and sandwiches. We’re all modern now. I think it’s hummus and sparkling mineral water. isn’t it? But I think what we will get now is a trade union movement that at least believes the Leader of the Opposition won’t agree on everything, but is much more in tune with what we think our members need, which is a decent standard of living, security in their job, proper facilities for their elderly relatives, or the kids who need free education to go to university. The fact that we’re now going to agree on so much I think will show a new spirit of co-operation between the Labour leadership and the trade unions’ leadership. And I think that can only be a good thing.
CHRIS MANN: The other remarkable thing is that he has been elected by such a majority despite all these warnings of a political apocalpse if it happened. It seems the rank and file have totally ignored that. The question is, will the electorate at large ignore that? Will they make him electable? Is it possible?
MARK SERWOTKA: Well I certainly think it’s possible. We must remember the election of course isn’t until 2020, and what Jeremy did in his campaign was he enthused and mobilised hundreds of thousands of people, who perhaps haven’t been to a political meeting or voted in something like this for many many years. And I think therefore that what we now need to have is Jeremy will need to get his message out to the British public, not through the pages of the tabloids who are anti-Labour and anti-him, but through making sure people understand what it is he stands for. And I think when people now what he stands for, which is a decent wage for a decent day’s work, job security, a decent social security system, fairness in our economic choices that we make, more and more people will think, well do you know what, I actually agree with that. And what it will tell them is they perhaps haven’t had that choice in the last few elections, because the parties have been too close together. And I think when that happens the electorate will be very excited, which is why I think he can indeed become Prime Minister.
CHRIS MANN: But in terms of sending out a signal with his first appointments, the most senior roles on the Labour front bench all taken by men.
MARK SERWOTKA: Well I think the facts are that David Cameron’s Cabinet is a third women, and Jeremy has appointed more than 50% in his Shadow Cabinet. Yes it’s true that at the moment the senior posts have been allocated to men, but there will be many many women playing a very important role in his shadow team. And I think that when you look at some of those posts, a lot of people for example have said why is John McDonnell Shadow Chancellor. Well John McDonnell is Shadow Chancellor because he more than anyone else believes and supports Jeremy’s economic vision for a fairer Britain. And I can’t think of a better Shadow Chancellor at the moment. But I’m also pretty clear that Jeremy has fought for equality for decades, and the fact that more than 50% of his team will be women I think is a good thing.
CHRIS MANN: But for all the proposals he has, the big question is, and John McDonnell is going to have to explain this, how are you going to pay for it? Are you going to borrow even more money?
MARK SERWOTKA: Well I think what John will start to explain is that there’s £123 billion in tax that is avoided, evaded or not collected. If that money, or even half of it, was collected, we wouldn’t need to see any public expenditure cuts. So I think what John will make the case first of all to say that people should pay their fair share. Corporations should not be dodging tax. Rich people should be paying their fair share. We’ve got to tighten up some of the tax loopholes in which people often don’t pay any tax whatsoever through tax scams. And if that happens, we will be faced with a different exchequer, which will have more money in it to make choices. I think that’s what John will do. But I think he will also make the point that economists have always accepted that borrowing to invest is a good economic choice, because you can grow your economy over time, rather than believe you have to have cuts to some pre-decided economic plan over four years of a parliament.
CHRIS MANN: Well if you accept that Blair was more pink than red, the last time there was a Labour Government of this complexion of course was under Jim Callaghan, before that Harold Wilson. And there were huge problems with strikes, with the difficulties with the trade unions. What’s going to happen this time?
MARK SERWOTKA: Well in 1979 I was leaving school, and I think many many people now who are voting, they’re not going to be thinking oh what happened in the ’70s and ’80s. They’re going to ask themselves what happens now in a more modern society in a different type of Britain. And therefore the question isn’t about are the unions going to try and flex their muscles and bring governments down. The question is whether we representing six and a half million people, and Jeremy representing the official Opposition, can ensure we have a different set of political choices. And there wouldn’t be strikes if we didn’t have public sector workers who have had eleven years of pay restraint in some cases, who’s tax credits have been frozen so they’re being driven into poverty, who’s jobs are going, who’s pensions are being changed, People only go on strike because they don’t want those things to happen. I think we’d all rather have a sensible negotiation for a fair outcome, rather than strikes. But if you can’t get that, the right to strike is a fundamental human right, and I believe the Government are trying to put real draconian restrictions on that right.
CHRIS MANN: That’s Mark Serwotka talking to me a little earlier on. He’s General Secretary of the PCS Public and Commercial Services Union.