by Dan Hodges
If Ed Miliband picks a fight with the unions, he’ll lose. That’s not a threat or a warning, but a statement of fact.
Just take a look at the trouble he’s managed to get himself into over the past few days. On Friday the Guardian reported that he intended to use the Refounding Labour review to begin the process of “weakening the grip of the unions”. On Sunday the Observer reported he was “on a collision course” over the block vote and Thursday’s strike action. All dramatic, and seemingly unequivocal, stuff.
Then things started to unravel. On the political breakfast shows two of Ed’s most loyal Parliamentary aides, Peter Hain and Sadiq Khan, did what loyal aides do best: they pulled the rug out from under their man.
“I don’t think political leaders, in opposition or in government, should either applaud strikes or condemn strikes”, said Hain.
“It is a failure on both sides when there is strike action … it’s the last, last thing you do and what I’d like to see over the next three or four days is ministers, trade union leaders, speaking and trying to resolve this dispute”, said the slightly more on message Khan.
Yesterday saw Labour sources working manfully to repair the damage, with differing degrees of success. “The Hain and Khan comments were over-interpreted”, said an insider. Sorry, they weren’t. Ed Miliband’s statement that the upcoming industrial action was “a mistake” is clearly incompatible with Hain’s statement that political leaders should not condemn strikes. And the signal this sent was not lost on the unions or the wider party. “If even people like Hain are starting to put daylight between themselves and Ed, he really is in trouble”, said one shadow cabinet source.
In fairness, the sight of his most trusted Parliamentary supporters heading for the hills did not appear to have unduly unnerved Miliband. “Ed believes Thursday’s strike action is a mistake”, said a Labour insider robustly. “He thinks the majority of the fault lies with the government, but he remains very clear. The strikes shouldn’t happen. He’s with Ed Balls on this. It’s a trap”.
Great. Just don’t tell Dave Prentis. His response to a similar warning from the shadow chancellor was succinct: “When we need your advice Ed, we’ll ask for it. If you’ve nothing to say, shut your gob”.
Labour sources claim there was a degree of choreography to this playground machismo, and that Prentis phoned Balls to warn him of his intention to “give him a whack”. But that a mature general secretary like Prentis felt the need to deliver such a coarse put down is worrying, and indicative of the pressures that are building within even relatively moderate unions. Both the Labour leadership and the unions have distinct roles to act out in the upcoming industrial drama, and they need to ensure that each has the space to play them, without ramping up the rhetoric to the point at which tough words need to be matched by even tougher deeds.
But whatever difficulties are set to arise from the competing priorities revealed by this Thursday’s strikes, they represent relatively small beer and sandwiches compared to the problems thrown up by the Refounding Labour review. Senior party sources were attempting to put distance themselves from some of the more lurid rhetoric contained in Sunday’s Observer. “Not too much in it. Overhyped”, was one analysis.
But the consensus amongst party insiders is that while Ed Miliband isn’t actively seeking confrontation over his proposals for reducing the voice of the unions, and increasing the influence of the constituencies and even non-party members, he wants those reforms nonetheless. The manner in which the three main unions retain control of the voting at party conference, finding ways of giving ordinary voters a say in policy development and reviewing the rules for electing the party leader all remain firmly on Miliband’s agenda.
The extent to which the trade unions are open to such a discussion is a different matter. One senior union official I spoke to advised Labour’s leader to set himself a more modest objective: “He’s got his speech at TUC and his speech at party conference. He needs to nail them or he’s out”.
Though that’s a minority view, what’s striking is the contrasting perceptions of the relationship from the differing vantage points of Ed Miliband’s office and the office of your average union general secretary. Ed Miliband is said to be confident of his ability to negotiate major changes to Labour’s constitution without an unseemly showdown. In contrast, many union insiders currently question the ability of Labour’s leader to negotiate his way out of a wet paper bag. “I found out the other day that someone called Anna Yearley has been given responsibility as Ed’s union fixer”, said one senior trade unionist. “I’ve never met Anna Yearley. I’ve never spoken to Anna Yearley. I wouldn’t know Anna Yearley if I fell over her in the street”.
Another union general secretary queried the extent to which Miliband understands the basic dynamics of union relations: “At the end, when Gordon was trying to ram through changes he’d say, “either give me what I want or I’m off and you get a Tory government”. What’s Ed’s pitch going to be? You’ll get two Tory governments”?
And stradling everything is the legacy of the leadership election. There is a tired old narrative that says Ed Miliband won that election because of the unions. The problem with that tired old narrative is that it is true. “We went out on a limb to convince our members that Ed was the man for them”, said one union source, “What are we supposed to do, go back to them and say, ‘you got him elected, but now you’ve got to let him trample all over you so he looks good in the Mail’”? Even the more pragmatic union officials are worried about the lack of room for manoeuvre. “Look, we know the score. We know Ed’s got to play to the gallery to an extent. But we’ve got a constituency as well. And our constituents are saying, ‘we gave him the job, we’re paying his wages, what do we get out of the deal’”?
Labour’s leader isn’t interested in crossing the road to pick a fight. It’s not his style. But you don’t need to pick a fight to get into one. And unless managed skilfully, his party reform prospectus could see him backed into a corner from which he will find it difficult to extricate himself.
If Ed Miliband and the unions do come to blows, there will only be one winner.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.