Socialist Worker

CWU leader Dave Ward says, 'We need a strategy to beat the Tories'

CWU union leader Dave Ward spoke to Charlie Kimber about the prospects for Jeremy Corbyn, why more power has shifted to the bosses—and how we can win it back

Issue No. 2489

Jeremy COrbyn and CWU union leader Dave Ward (with megaphone) rally outside parliament last year

Jeremy COrbyn and CWU union leader Dave Ward (with megaphone) rally outside parliament last year (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Socialist Worker will interview a number of union leaders and other figures on the left over the coming weeks to discuss how to build a bigger fightback to the Tories. Here Dave Ward gives his views on Jeremy Corbyn and how to change the union movement. He was elected last year as general secretary of the union for postal and telecom workers, the Communication Workers Union. It has over 200,000 members.

How are you approaching the job?

As general secretary you can set the agenda in the union, and I’m trying to learn from previous experience.

One of the conclusions that helped me quickly get behind Jeremy Corbyn is that you can’t avoid putting issues in a wider context.

New Labour had some achievements, but its supporters never talk about its failings. Its biggest failing was that it didn’t bring about a lasting change for a more equal society.

Since I started work in 1976 as a messenger boy, there’s definitely been a shift away from workers towards employers.

The world of work has been transformed—for the worse. New Labour in its obsessively pro-business way allowed this shift to take place almost under our noses.

In the postal industry New Labour supported the liberalisation agenda in advance of the rest of Europe.

Politicians say competition is beneficial and leads to growth, but there’s another side that they completely ignore.

Competition means a worse service, and workers employed on worse terms and conditions.

To reverse that shift needs a political and an industrial solution.

Like us, you’ve been enthusiastic about Jeremy Corbyn’s election. Yet you haven’t always been Labour’s strongest supporter.

I stood for general secretary on a ticket that said Labour’s not going to get something for nothing.

New Labour was making decisions that caused us huge problems. They privatised the work we did before they privatised the company.

I didn’t think I could justify our union giving money to Labour when they were shafting our members and our industry.

I can’t stand people such as Peter Mandelson saying we’ve got to get closer to the Tories to be electable.

People say Corbyn is pushing a hard left agenda. It’s baloney—it would have been a centre-left agenda back in the 1970s or 1980s.

This is our chance to change Labour back to a party that does support working people, people who are vulnerable. It comes down to policies.

There are three key themes that Labour has to develop.

One is the economy. We have got to start having a government that is prepared to intervene in the market. Everybody knows the failings of the free market.

Secondly, renationalisation. I don’t think it’s about saying you can privatise everything, or renationalise everything.

For some things there is such a strong case for renationalisation, such as railways, the NHS, welfare and Royal Mail.

I would like to see employees owning some businesses, but with new models that go beyond getting the scraps when all the investors have taken their bit.

I’m talking about proper workers’ ownership and workplace democracy.

I think everything’s possible. You can win people over. And if you win people over you can shift those big controlling forces in society which are built around big corporate companies.

Thirdly, housing. I think Labour’s got to be bold. I’m fed up hearing about how Barratt and other firms are going to build us out of a housing crisis.

I got married when I was 21, and had a family young. I had a job in the post office and we got a council flat pretty much as soon as we got married.

I had that security. I look at my kids now, I know they haven’t got that start.

If Labour is going to win the election it has to be bold and radical. It has to be prepared to say it will shift wealth to workers.

Corbyn faces formidable enemies, including in his own party. And the experience of Syriza in Greece shows how the rich react to the threat of change.

I think everything’s possible. You can win people over. And if you win people over you can shift those big controlling forces in society which are built around big corporate companies.

We know the power of the banks and other institutions. But that is a battle that is always there.

I sense that with the right strategies now you can make some inroads into that.

It’s about alliances. I go to People’s Assembly meetings and other meetings and there are a lot of people who are willing to fight, even in difficult circumstances.

What I don’t see is an overarching strategy. Corbyn is starting to make us all think about that strategy.

And we have to be patient. If Corbyn is elected saying he will renationalise three industries and he manages one, that’s still an improvement, still a success.

As for the MPs who oppose Corbyn, the party will eventually change, people will join in the constituencies.

Corbyn is going to become the moral compass of the party and the policies have got to grow around that.

We can see the difficulties Corbyn is facing over an issue like Trident.

With Trident I would say there’s a different debate today to the 1970s.

I think saying we’re all against nuclear weapons is the wrong starting point.

There will be huge pressure on Corbyn.

The shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry, said, let’s assess the security threats to Britain again.

When was the last time we did that? People do worry about security, it’s natural.

Do we value proper services or do we want to spend money on something that might or might not happen, and if it does happen there’s none of us here anyway?

You can make a rational argument now that goes beyond the traditional. I think it is a winnable argument.

How do the unions need to change?

I’m all for people who stand up and fight but there’s not a coordinated strategy.

I want to put more resources into frontline reps and making a workplace strong in its own right. I want members to feel confident to bring about change in their workplace.

I’m a supporter of resolving issues before you have a dispute. The heart of that goes to how strong you are in a workplace. 

I was a rep in Tooting, where I learnt about trade unionism.

People say I’m the general secretary and must have a lot of power. I was most powerful when I was at Tooting.

I knew ultimately if I said to members that management have gone beyond what’s acceptable that we would get a response, whether a walkout, sitting in the canteen, not doing overtime.

Management knew that. That was when you were strong. The challenge is how do you recreate that strength today? 

I’m all for people who stand up and fight but there’s not a coordinated strategy.

I think we need a redesign of our movement. We should construct a bargaining agenda across the trade union movement on key issues.

I think we should pick three or four issues that every union signs up to. It still leaves room for unions to have their own collective bargaining agenda.

As for recruitment and organising, something has to be wrong if we’re in one of the harshest periods in the world of work, yet union membership is declining.

I want unions to come together and talk about working together, not fight each other for members.

How should unions react to the Trade Union Bill?

The Trade Union Bill is a challenge and a threat. We have to discuss doing things differently to begin the process of unravelling it.

The CWU has called for full support for the TUC week of action, we have plans for Thursday 11 February.

It’s important to oppose the bill, but it will go through, and the week of action is also about preparing for what comes afterwards.

There are arguments about having a general strike.

I’ve listened to debate at the TUC and at the end some people are for a general strike, and some aren’t, but the debate ends with nobody doing anything.

Saying I’m for a general strike can be a cover for inaction. Every union has to resolve to do more.

It would have been a good idea for the TUC to write a personal letter to every trade unionist—six million people—urging them to take action on Thursday 11 February.

It would have had an impact.

We have to take the fight beyond the parliamentary process and we will have to choose our moments when the new laws are used against workers.


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