At the Labour Party National Policy Forum starting on 24 July , the unions want to get a “Warwick 2”, a second version of the list of concessions obtained by them at a Policy Forum in summer 2004, in the run-up to the 2005 general election.
The Labour Party’s finances make it very likely that the unions will get something. The Labour Party is in deep debt; businesses and the wealthy have cut their donations, disillusioned by Labour’s repeated financial scandals and the probability that the Tories will form the next government; Gordon Brown has no-one but the unions to bail him out financially.
The Guardian (18 July) reported that the unions have tabled 130 demands, and expect to press about 50 of them. “The complete list, obtained by the Guardian, includes a right to take supportive strike action, scrapping NHS prescription charges, bringing all hospital cleaning back in-house, and a new agreement on public sector pay with the Treasury”.
Later in the article, however, the Guardian’s story is: “On union rights, [the unions] want the right to strike [under what circumstances?], internet balloting, tax deductions for union membership subscriptions, and an extension of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to construction...”
That the unions are making demands at all is good. If they can wring any concessions from Brown, and hold the Labour Party to them, that will be good.
But several problems need to be remembered.
* The Guardian may have “the complete list”, but union members certainly don’t. The National Policy Forum is a behind-closed-doors event, without the openness of old Labour Party conferences. The process here is essentially one of backroom haggling and nudging, not any sort of democracy.
* The unions only have 30 seats out of 184 in the Forum. They will still probably win some deal. But that is because of the finances, not because of any democratic accountability of the 2008 Labour Party to the labour movement.
* The original Warwick Agreement of 2004 was hailed by the unions as a huge triumph. What is the verdict of the last four years? The Agreement did not turn the Blair-Brown government into any sort of even mildly reforming pro-working-class government. There were a few concessions on secondary issues, but the basic hard-faced orientation of the Government was untouched. Politically, the main effect of the original Warwick Agreement is that criticism of Blair and Brown from the large unions ceased for a year.
* Rank and file union members have no control over which of the 130 demands the unions press, which they drop, and which they modify.
Warwick seemed a triumph to some trade unionists only because their expectations had been so beaten down. The same may happen again.
But the political aspirations of the working class should not be limited to securing larger or smaller sops through behind-the-scenes haggling by union leaders.
The working class, alarmed and battered by the unfolding economic crisis, needs a government serving its interests and accountable to it, as loyal to it as the Thatcher, Major, Blair, and Brown governments have been to the capitalist class.
And for that we need a working-class political party, formulating working-class policies through open debate and democratic decision, not union leaders negotiating behind closed doors.