To be honest I have found the press reaction to Ed Miliband’s speech at TUC Congress rather annoying. Of course he was heckled by a minority of delegates; that was always going to happen. But as we can seen from the delegates reaction on Pete Murray’s film, most were listening attentively, and UNISON delegate John Gray reports “it was at times a bit of roller coaster reception for him. Mind you far more applause than heckles.” However, the Daily Mirror reports:
Ed Miliband was booed, jeered and heckled by the unions yesterday for refusing to back strike action on pensions. The Labour leader got a rough ride at the Trades Union Congress when he said industrial action was a “mistake” and insisted that unions risked becoming “irrelevant” unless they modernised. Delegates yelled “shame” and “get off” as Mr Miliband called for them to continue negotiations with the Government.
This is a big exaggeration. GMB General Secretary, Paul Kenny, has it about right when he says:
I have to give him credit for his courage in coming here and speaking frankly to us. What comes across is that he is not ashamed of the trade union links to the Labour Party. As Labour Leader he is not embarrassed by his association with trade unions and trade unionists. His engagement with trade unionists on the ground will bring to the fore what needs to be done to get the economy moving and to bring fairness to our communities.”
Working people have heard from a Labour leader who is on their side, offering a message of hope and an alternative economic strategy, putting jobs and a decent future for our kids ahead of the interests of the elite.”
The full transcript of Miliband’s speech is here, so let us judge how Ed really did.
Let us be clear, no leader of the Labour Party, whether in office or in opposition, has ever explicitly endorsed strike action before, so it seems a little over-optimistic to expect this of Ed now. We could also observe that Ed Miliband’s argument that June’s strikes were ill judged while negotiations were on-going is not a manifestly unreasonable point of view; and is broadly in alignment with the strategy of the big unions. (Largely by coincidence none of the public sector unions who struck on 30th June are affiliated to the Labour Party.) Nevertheless, Miliband’s performance in June was woeful, not only in his unnecessary and silly condemnation of the action, but also his lack of apparent grasp of the substantive pension issue.
Today was much better:
In Government, we worked with trade unions to reform public sector pensions. We sat down and we negotiated. It was difficult but we got an agreement. That shows the way we should reform pensions in this country. It’s not about change versus no change. It’s about what kind of change, and how it’s done.
The Tories have set about reform in completely the wrong way. Even before John Hutton’s report was complete, they announced a 3% surcharge on millions of your members. It was a typically bad move by a bad government trying to pick a fight.
So I fully understand why millions of decent public sector workers feel angry. But while negotiations were going on, I do believe it was a mistake for strikes to happen. I continue to believe that.
But what we need now is meaningful negotiation to prevent further confrontation over the autumn. Ministers need to show public sector workers – and the people who rely upon those services – that they are serious about finding a way forward.
The Tories claim to be the party of reform. But their actions risk derailing the vital reform of public sector pensions because many people may now opt out of the system. That won’t save money. It will end up costing the taxpayer billions of pounds.
And at the same time as we see millions of hard working families being hit, who is getting a tax cut? This year they are cutting taxes for the banks.
Miliband correctly demands meaningful negotiations, and makes a well judged remark that any reforms could destabilise the pension schemes if more people opt out.
The trade union movement mustn’t let ourselves be divided over this issue of negotiations. As I have explained before, there are real differences in the leverage that the unions can exert over the Local Government Pension Scheme compared to the so-called unfunded schemes; so in the specific negotiations over individual schemes, the unions may be experiencing differences in government approach. But we are all on the same side, which is the point that Ed Miliband signally failed to grasp in June.
Expecting that Ed Miliband should give a fighting lead over resisting pension changes is unrealistic; and might even be counter-productive as most union members trust their own union more than they trust the Labour Party. What we are reasonable in expecting from Miliband, is that he explains how it is the government’s fault that negotiations are failing; and that he masters the substantive pension issue. He should learn from how Harold Wilson dealt with the 1974 miners’ strike.
Elsewhere in his speech, Miliband struck positive notes about the shared values of the Labour Party and the trade unions; about the need for investment and good, well paid jobs. Miliband was positive about the need for trade unions to extend their reach into the private sector, and that government needs to take a more pro-active role in the economy. Generally it was an assured performance by a social-democratic politician, who was addressing a broader audience than those just in the room. It is in the interests of the trade unions to have a Labour leader who can win a general election, not just one who can be popular with a trade union audience.
Of course, there are parts of Miliband’s vision that are problematic; despite the honey coating, there is a hard centre here:
And it explains why I want reforms to the Labour Party to strengthen our movement. The three million trade union levy payers – working men and women – are a huge asset to our party. They should never, ever, feel like passive or unwanted members of our movement. I want them to feel part of it. Proud of it.
And I want us reaching out to the people who are not members of our party, not even members of the trade unions, to hear their voices too. That is the way we become a stronger movement.
Miliband struggles with the nature of the relationship, not understanding that members of affiliated unions expect to be politically represented by their union; and that means a form of collective representation quite different from the relationship the party can have with individual members of the public who randomly express limited support for Labour as “supporters”.
To be honest, Ed Miliband’s ambivalence about the influence of the unions within the party is a much more pregnant source of future conflict than whether or not he supports strike action.