Dave Ward: “We’re not talking about why this country needs to change"

The general secretary of the Communication Workers Union on Labour's election campaign, its deputy leadership, and the future of trade unionism.

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What do the boldest commitments in Labour’s 2019 manifesto have in common? In the case of two of the policies that have generated the most excited (and derisive) coverage – a four-day week and free, nationalised broadband – the answer is the Communication Workers Union. 

While talk of union influence on the Labour leadership usually begins and ends at the name Len McCluskey, the CWU – the party’s fifth-largest trade union affiliate – has wielded arguably greater clout than any other when it comes to shaping what Corbynism would mean as a programme for government.

While other union leaders raised concerns and complaints at the meeting at which Labour’s manifesto was finalised earlier this month, Dave Ward, the CWU’s general secretary, stayed silent for the duration. 

“I didn’t say a single thing in the Clause V meeting,” Ward told the New Statesman when we met at his union’s Wimbledon headquarters this week. “Everything we’d done was all in there.”

Now, with under a fortnight before voters go to the polls, Ward, the first leader of a major union to endorse Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership in 2015, wants to change the general election race, too. He wants Labour and the unions to make a major campaign intervention to shift the debate away from Brexit and on to domestic policy. 

“This was always going to be an uphill struggle,” he said, stressing that Corbyn’s Brexit position had held “as well as it could hold”. 

“I still believe, passionately believe, that there’s so much on offer here that will really, really transform society in the right way. I’m still of the view that there will be a moment… I think there’s still room for people to find a way through Brexit, to realise that what’s on offer here is bigger than Brexit,” Ward said.

“I’m a very optimistic person… I think we need to make some different interventions. My view is that if we can get the agenda for working people across, then this is all still to play for.”

“My view is that this election is so much bigger than Brexit… People need to wake up. Hardline Remainers, hardline Leavers – you’re deluded if you really think the world’s going to change as much following the outcome of this.

"Outside of a no-deal Brexit, and the impact that would have on the economy, jobs, and the working people that would pay the price for that, I honestly don’t think there’s a huge difference between remaining in the EU and a credible option to leave that meets Labour’s key tests… The problems that society faces are so much bigger than that.”

He added: “Labour’s grid is there. Most unions by now will have had their own plans. But I think you’ve got to be ready to change tack occasionally. My view would be that we should be planning an intervention, and I’ve been talking to our team about that – and one or two other key people in the movement about that. 

“We want to make a different intervention in the next couple of weeks that will shift the debate on, or at least give an opportunity to. Jeremy needs to be part of that.”

Ward goes on to argue that Labour and the unions needed to bring “normal people” to the foreground of its campaign. “The big issue in this election is whether there’s going to be any intervention that is genuinely going to cut through, mostly to the places that Johnson and Farage are targeting – let’s call it the northern heartlands. What’s really on offer for working-class people? Can we create an intervention that builds on the manifesto? 

“We’ve got to get back to the key narrative of defining what real change means, and why it’s necessary,” he said. 

“We’re not talking about why this country needs to change – why the world needs to change. The bottom line is, whatever way you want to cut it, unless we’re prepared to challenge the people who rig the economy in their favour, unless we’re prepared fundamentally to change the world of work, of insecurity, unless we’re going to share in the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution, which I think is way, way bigger than the outcome of Brexit.”

“I would want an intervention where normal people are talking to people about normal people, and frankly, going: we need to wake up here! I want to see that type of intervention, where the overall narrative of changing the balance of forces in society comes to the fore, unashamedly.”

Ward nonetheless believes that the political debate has shifted irreversibly to the left since Corbyn’s first victory in 2015. “What’s interesting about this election is that actually, Johnson is being forced to talk about many things that the Tories would never have wanted to have done before,” he said. “If you look at his manifesto, and through the announcements, they’re making, you can pretty much say that it’s not far away from Labour’s 2017 manifesto. 

“There has been a shift in people’s awareness that things like the day-to-day pressure on every single worker in every company in every sector to work harder and faster for less is real. I think what politicians haven’t done is tapped into that enough. What the Tories have realised is that, without that agenda, they’re not going to win.”

But what if they do? “For us as a union, we don’t put all our eggs in one basket. I’m a trade unionist, and our job is to defend workers. It has never been more important that we change the world of work. So all we’re going to do, if the worst were to happen, is shift back and take that forward, and take on the Tories.

“There’s going to be a shift in the world of work, and the trade union movement will force the Tories into that position. I don’t want to see it as the Tories, actually - it’s employers and big corporations. We are going to come after those people come what may.”

Ward believes that fight can only succeed with a “new model of trade unionism” that prioritises greater cooperation between unions, a common bargaining agenda, a manifesto for workers’ rights, and a coordinated push to enact it. The unions, he tells me, will hold a day of action on 1 May next year, and he is in discussions with Len McCluskey and Tim Roache, his counterparts at Unite and the GMB respectively, on working together more closely. 

"I think you’ll see the first coming together of the three unions – not as a merged union, but as a serious thing to change, for example, the postal sector, the communicators' sector… we will pool our resources and our strategies,” he said.

“I’m not a protector of one big union, I’m not a protector of the idea that we’ve all got to have little unions – I want the model that is going to best organise workers, and I’m open to ideas on what that is.”

Regardless of just how the election unfolds, the Labour Party will soon change, too – with the election of a new deputy leader looming, and, if the worst does indeed come to worst, a replacement for Corbyn. Does Ward agree with McCluskey, who last week told the NS that the Labour leader should not rush to resign in the wake of a defeat, as Ed Miliband did?

He demurred. “I’m not really focussed on that at all. My thoughts on that will shape once we know the election result. What I’m focussed on at the moment is giving everything we can to get Jeremy into No 10. I’m not one of the sort of people who sit there worrying about that sort of thing. I’ve got thoughts, and that’s just common sense stuff. Len is a very, very sensible person in my book - and a great leader of Unite. Of course we’ll all talk about that.”

But Ward does believe that Tom Watson’s departure gives Labour the opportunity to consider its leadership structures afresh. Asked what qualities he wanted to see in Watson’s successor, he said: “I think it’s time to look at the structure and the role. You can’t do that in the middle of this election. My view would be before I started talking about individuals, it’s right to have a proper debate about what the role does.

“Is it time to think about things in a very different way? My focus would be on: what does this role do? 

“It seems to me that there’s a role in the deputy leader that might be something very different. Does a deputy leader necessarily have to be an MP? Is there a role about building a movement of people?”

A similar discussion is currently underway within the CWU. Ward has long believed that unions must not only link their industrial and political work in order to succeed – a mantra he says explains his union’s abiding influence in policy discussions. 

“The union has to see beyond an industrial wing to win,” he told me, adding that the CWU considering establishing a new wing that is “unashamedly a social movement” and “makes the connection between the world of work and those bigger social issues”. 

With that in mind, Ward believes Labour must look beyond its parliamentary party when considering the question of leadership. “I think that’s a very narrow view,” he said of the assumption that senior roles must be filled by MPs. “I have a similar view if you say to me about our executives – it has a role, but the strength of any movement is its connection with the grassroots, and its ability to coordinate ideas."

So in his view, “Labour should think about its structure, and where the power lies, and whether you need a deputy leader who’s an MP. That’s just a thought about the structure and getting that right, before we rush headlong into who can do the job.”

But Ward was clear on one thing – the tone of the election debate not only must change, but will. “Most people know that things aren’t right, and they know that they aren’t getting a fair deal. They just haven’t moved onto the question of who we can trust enough to deliver us that change.”

Reflecting on the biggest question of all, he is bullish. “Can you make this election, which is truly bigger than Brexit, can it become that? People will tell you you can’t do that. I haven’t given up on that. I think it can. I have a little feeling inside me – that there’s something that might happen."

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.