Revisiting Warwick

Labour is turning to the unions once again to ease its financial problems. But will the union bureaucrats write more blank cheques? Alan Stevens calls for a political fightback

In the wake of the 'cash for honours' scandal most of Labour's rich business backers have pulled the plug. Loans that might have been converted to donations on delivery of a seat in the Lords are now being called in. Large bank loans taken out to fund Blair's election campaign have to be paid off.

All of this means that Labour is now more financially dependent on union backing than for decades. The proportion of union money has risen from 46% to about 75% - that is, risen not in real terms, but relative to the massive decline in donations from fat-cat businessmen. Labour would be facing bankruptcy without big injections of union money. And then there is the problem of funding the next general election campaign.

This has prompted The Sunday Telegraph to declare: "Brothers tell Labour what they want in return for their millions" (January 27). As an extension to the Warwick agreement of 2004 the unions are now pushing for 'Warwick II'. I think the DVD for Warwick I has been returned to Blockbusters - it just doesn't play past the early promise. But before considering Warwick II let us recap.

The so-called Warwick agreement struck between the leadership of the Labour Party and leading trade unions in July 2004 was, and still lingers on as, a pretty shoddy affair. The government, wavering not one jot from its project of attacking workers and promoting business interests, found it prudent to shake the grubby hand of the union bureaucracy. With an election then looming, Blair wanted a cessation of hostilities - at least from the trade union side. Although a third term for Blair was not much in doubt, he needed union resources. Labour Party membership and morale had collapsed, there were resolutions attacking government policy, particularly over Iraq, on the agenda of the TUC conference, unions were cutting funding to Labour and he faced a potential row at the conference. Blair wanted the unions on message for the election and he needed millions of pounds from the trade union coffers for what was to be a very expensive contest.

Despite all his problems Blair had an ace up his sleeve - the union bureaucracies would bend over backwards to avoid any damage to Labour's election prospects, no matter how remote defeat might seem. Thoroughly wedded to social democracy even when both the 'social' and the 'democracy' were missing, union leaders just needed a package that could be sold to disaffected members. This too, after long pleading to be let in the tradesmen's entrance for a hearing, was a chance to negotiate something - anything.

So, cautious to a fault, the deal asked for was lame in the extreme - a mere tinkering on the margins. From a list of over 70 'demands' about 56 policy commitments were agreed. Most of these were not new - they were already policy, but had not acted on. A few new points were added, but all the big issues for workers - ending private finance initiatives, the repeal of the anti-trade union laws, etc - were not up for discussion. But this was enough to sing the praises of a deal that signified at long last some movement. It was also enough for the big four unions to gang up against the motion demanding withdrawal from Iraq at the TUC and let Blair off the hook. In fact that year it was not so much the TUC conference as the Warwick agreement rally.

We should not be overly critical of the trade union leaderships though. I am sure that the negotiations were tough and they did deserves some credit for wringing out a few minor promises. The union bureaucracies have their own inherent weaknesses and they all operate in their traditional role as mediators within the system of exploitation. The problem is that there was a tacit agreement throughout the union bureaucracies that there was no alternative to Blair (a return to some non-existent golden age of 'old Labour' is not on the cards). Hence, until Labour is 'reclaimed' we have to make sure we do not let the Tories in, no matter what the price. This is a crippling weakness. However, this is partly a reflection of a weakness amongst the rank and file and most especially the left. I will return to this later.

In truth what have the unions been bargaining with, other than money and show-casing at conference? There is no significant rank and file organisation, no real fighting ability, no alternative programme - not even the old 'official communist' dream of an alternative economic strategy. Even that represented merely a left current within the system of exploitation - but then union leaders could mediate between militant organised workers and employers and governments. Today both government and employers have little need for mediation - there is very little by way of working class threat. Even with the occasional protest like this week's Public and Commercial Services Union action, strikes are still at an all-time low and employers and government feel free to push their anti-working class measures pretty well uninterruptedly.

What the unions thought they got with Warwick I was not much to start with. What they actually got was a lot less. Two and a half years on and most of the commitments are still just promises - a few minor pledges have been implemented, others partly implemented. The more important ones have been consistently blocked.

Now, despite the pensions issue and the fight for jobs and pay in the civil service, it is not so much militancy or fighting back that lies behind new demands in any Warwick II - it is the financial crisis in New Labour and the developing prospect of a hung parliament next time round.

Even in these circumstances Gordon Brown is sufficiently confident of unions toeing the line - he recently told them that using block votes against government policy at Labour party conferences cannot continue, so democracy (I use the term loosely) and commitment to policy do not count for much.

Indeed despite arguments over union votes, broken promises and a desire for something better than Blair the unions will be even less disposed to make waves for Labour, as the threat of a hung parliament or even a defeat looms.

The democratic deficit revealed by the Iraq war extends far beyond the parliamentary system and ministers ignoring or blatantly blocking party policy. It extends into all facets of society, including the unions and most of the left. For union members who want to know what is in the union bosses' minds for Warwick II it is easier to find out in the Tory press.

According to The Sunday Telegraph it will include:

This list is likely to be highly selective - like Warwick I the actual content is probably much larger and what might eventually be agreed could well be similarly on the margins of what is needed.

With the big four unions acting as a political bloc and practically substituting for the TUC, these few leaders can draw up 'demands' in committee rooms for the whole movement. Warwick II will probably be a repeat of Warwick I and the attacks will go on without much interruption.

However, there are a few bright spots. The TGWU seems to have a bit more of a plan than most others. Many unions are putting tremendous efforts into building membership but with the TGWU it is on a qualitatively higher level. Whereas the emphasis within Unison is on numbers, within the TGWU there seems to be a genuine attempt to rebuild a strong shop stewards base. The T&G wants industrial muscle (and incidentally effective recruiting power). Aside from being a better survival strategy, the development of a fighting structure means the ability to go into negotiations with better bargaining power. The TGWU at least wants to do better. But even this is not enough.

What is desperately needed is an independent working class alternative. We need a strategic programme that starts to turn the tide in our favour. That can only mean a revolutionary programme and revolutionary party, a Communist Party. This is no easy matter, of course - such a party has to be forged in a long process of struggle.

However, objectively conditions are ripening for this to come about. But in order to take advantage of this we need the subjective will, not least among the existing left groups. The CPGB has been arguing for partyism for more than two decades. Unfortunately, the larger left groups stand as a barrier to this process. They stand in the way of independent working class struggle.

The Socialist Workers Party apes the popular front politics of the old 'official' CPGB but at a far lower level. The Socialist Party can talk left, but in practice its members behave just like any other trade union bureaucrat once they win the leadership - look at the PCSU. Both the SWP and SP, instead of fighting for genuine class independence, campaign for a rehashed party of the old Labour type, which, if it ever happened, would simply repeat all the old betrayals.

Rank and file militants who do want to fight back in a coherent way are left disarmed with only the warmed over social democratic fare offered by trade union bureaucrats as a programme. The Socialist Caucus in the PCSU were probably right to break from the main left grouping dominated by the collaborationist politics of the SP but programmatically they are all at sea. Greater militancy may work in small sectional disputes or even in whole departments, but they are very prone to being picked off. They also, like every other section of the trade unions, have no real fighting capacity in terms of cohering and leading the membership in a systematic way.

Militants are facing attacks that are systematic and generalised - directed against the entire working class of which they are just a small section. The SP's pragmatic 'solution' of banking small gains is virtually indistinguishable from that of the right. But militancy that has no direction (and no fighting contingents) a la SWP will not deliver the goods either.

There are no quick fixes - our class cannot begin to get out of this mess until we begin the process of building a working class party that fights around its own independent programme. This is the immediate task of all genuine revolutionaries and working class militants.