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Is Ed Miliband facing his High Noon at the TUC?

clockEd Miliband’s speech tomorrow at the TUC may well define the rest of his political career.

One of the most useful contributions to the debate about Ed Miliband’s proposed changes to the Labour Party has come from Luke Akehurst, who I am sure would not mind being referred to as representative of the traditional centre-right in the party. In a letter to the Guardian, Luke writes:

I read with deep concern about the GMB’s decision to cut its affiliation to and funding of the Labour Party. Labour First, the network of Labour moderates committed to the trade union link, argued in our submission to Ray Collins’s review of the link that trade unionists should not just have individual voices in the Labour party but that Ed Miliband’s reforms should be pursued in a way that is compatible with maintaining what the GMB describes as “collective engagement of trade unions in the party they helped to form”.

This is an expression of Labour’s collectivist rather than individualist values as a party. This is not an issue about left and right in the Labour party – the unions along with local government have historically been the pillars of the moderate Labour tradition.
Luke Akehurst 
Secretary, Labour First

The bizarre aspect of the current row is that Ed MIliband is doing a good job as leader of opposition, and he has shown he has the skill to set the policy agenda from the opposition benches: over Syria, over executive pay and over Levenson.

Yet as a knee-jerk reaction to a media brouhaha over the Falkirk West selection, Ed MIliband bounced himself into a row with the unions over an issue that the vast majority of voters don’t care about.

While millions of British people worry about the security of their jobs and over increases in food prices; while tens of thousands – including many in work – have been forced to use food banks; while essential services are being cut; this is the time Ed MIliband has chosen to tilt at windmills.

Usually Ed has a good head for looking beyond the froth and speculation of Portcullis House, and the Thick of It rumblings of the Westminster chatterers, and has chosen instead to talk about the real issues, that affect real people. But on this occasion he has mucked up, and picked a fight he doesn’t need to have.

Jon Lansman writes about a hardening attitude from the unions.

The decision of GMB to reduce its funding of course does not affect that union’s crucial voting strength in 2014, when a special rules revision conference, and the annual conference preceding the general election will take place. However, it does give Ed MIliband a cold insight from the ghost of Christmas Future of what his proposals would mean, not only in terms of hard cash, but also of lost goodwill and moral authority within the wider labour movement. Miliband should not forget that trade unions are more trusted by both their members and the general public than politicians; and his job is to oppose the Conservative led government, not force a divisive row within his own party.

Of the leaders of the big three, Len McCluskey has been the most conciliatory towards Miiband’s proposals,but even within UNITE, the United Left faction, who have a majority on the executive, recently passed the following motion:

This United Left urges UNITE Executive Council to defend the Labour/Trade Union link when considering the Union’s response to Ed Miliband’s proposals. Whilst we support the encouragement of more active participation by union members in the life of the Party, we cannot accept that the collective representative role of the Trade Unions is abandoned or any reduction in voting strength or representation. This would be a victory for the Blairites and the right wing generally as without the Trade Unions as a collective force in the Labour Party, the Party will swing further to the right and the voice of progressive politics inside Labour will be lost”

And Len himself is now speaking much more in tune with the other union leaders, he recently said:

The relationship that we have with the Labour Party is on a collective basis. That’s what trade unions operate on – collectivism – and its important that people don’t try to [change] collectivism to individualism”

What is at stake is the relationship between the Labour Party and the trade unions as collective and democratic organisations in their own right. Fifteen unions, with some 3 million members, have democratically decided, though their own representative structures and conferences that the best interests of their members are served by seeking a Labour government, and pursuing their own policy objectives through the Labour Party.

Many trade union activists, and members, broadly support this approach in wanting a Labour government, and of course voting Labour, without feeling sufficiently engaged with the party to want to be members, let alone active members. It is entirely sensible for unions to articulate within the Labour Party not only the support of the most keen, but also the more lukewarm support for Labour from their members. It is a challenge for the party to inspire and solidify that support, and engagement with the unions as collective organisations is a help not a hindrance.

After all had the last Labour government listened to the unions more over issues like Iraq, housing, employment rights and private contractors in the NHS, Labour would be in a stronger position now.

Kevin Maguire in the Mirror has a firm grasp of the issue:

Miliband’s backed himself into a corner and desperately needs a way out.
Promising to outlaw zero-hours contracts which equal zero pay some weeks, or axing the malicious Bedroom Tax, are policy answers.

Union leaders furious with Miliband still want a Labour Government.
Common values should unite, not divide. Miliband could do worse than to remember the words of the great union leader Jack Jones on fractious Labourunion links: “Murder yes, divorce never.”

What Miliband desperately needs to understand is that for next year’s proposed special conference, then he may not have the votes either from the CLPs or the unions. He has simply failed to persuade either the membership in the constituencies or the unions.

It would be high stakes indeed for him to make this a question of personal confidence in him as leader, with a demand to “back him or sack him”, as it might well backfire. With goodwill and professionalism a compromise can be found that will leave the fundamental nature of the party unchanged, but still meet Ed’s objective of greater engagement with individual union members – let us hope that common sense prevails.



  1. James Martin says:

    Common sense may prevail if Miliband actually understood trade unions. He thinks he does of course, but every time he opens his mouth he shows he hasn’t got a clue. And so this man who has never had a proper job in his entire life prattles on and on about ‘working people’ in a manner of a middle class student union debating society meeting.

    Being a prat as big as Miliband is no joke, however. By either his stupidity or design he is showing ever more clearly that his real aim here is to complete ‘The Project’. So there will be no apologies for the innocent comrades names he has dragged through the mud, no apologies for the union whose only ‘crime’ was to recruit individual Labour Party members (which ironically is what he is claiming he wants himself!). No, because of all the battles Miliband could be fighting right now the only one that appears to matter to him is slapping down the very organisations that created the organisation he leads.

  2. Rob the cripple says:

    This to me seem to be more about Labour getting the political levy in full, by getting people to opt in Labour would state the money is theirs by right .

    It’s been a theme in labour for a while, unions have been paying less and less of the political levy to the Labour party and it’s been seen as a funding stream to be used more and more by the Unions for it’s political policies.

    This means Labour are getting less and less I know the GMB has cut the levy to Labour by a lot and I know they had Jack Straw looking at this.

    I’d hate to think all this would be that people who now opted in would been seen as backing Labour and the levy would then be seen as the Labour parties in full.

    If it is it, what a way to go about it.

    Today the Tories stated that they had basically fixed the country, we had Miliband in a shop saying it was rubbish, but it lasted a few seconds the rest was about the Unions and a bitter labour party.

    Surely if Labour wanted the opt in or the opt out or needed the levy paid in full this should have been done around a table not out in the open.

    The Tories today looked like a political party which was working for the country while labour looked basically out of it.

  3. Patrick Coates says:

    I have 31 Labour Members out of 153 members, I have told you this before. We the Labour Party could double our maybe treble membership today if we had a Family Membership. This makes 400, 000 to 500,000 members, without going to the TUC, Simple.

  4. Patrick Coates says:

    Sorry 31 Labour Trade Union members………

  5. swatantra says:

    Its not really about money; its more a matter of principle: Can the Unions buy influence in the LP with their money , or with their arguments for a better society. If Union Leaders think they can arm twist Labour into doing what they want, then they have another think coming. Labour should tell the Unions to stick their money, and go it alone. Labour in the end will do what is the right thing for the Nation. And bear in mind, the British People like an underdog that fights and fights again for what is right.

  6. James Martin says:

    Family membership Patrick? That is a joke, surely? After all, we are not talking rail cards here are we, but active choices about political commitment. And what right has any family member got to make that for someone else. I would never dream of doing it for my child, or for a partner come to that. They are individuals who may or may not share my politics, but with family membership all you will get is sleaze. Sleaze when selecting candidates and half a dozen people who have never been active locally turn up with the ‘head’ of the household to vote for the candidate he wants. Sleaze when extended family (or even in some cases tribal loyalty – after all this has happened already in some areas) comes before political debate, honest differences and individual choices freely made.

    And can we have a rule on here please that posters must at least have a passing grasp of Labour Party history, even the very basic stuff such as who formed it? That why at least people like swatantra wouldn’t make themselves look so utterly stupid everytime they pass comment…

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