For his own good, Ed mustn’t pick a fight with the unions

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.


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13 Responses to “For his own good, Ed mustn’t pick a fight with the unions”

  1. Ed Miliband is right to try and temper the clamour for strikes but you are right, he needs to be careful. Labour is almost solely funded by the unions and they won’t want to be told what to do.

  2. doreen ogden says:

    I still think and hope that Labour and the Unions are interlinked and should work together. My heart sinks every time Ed puts them down and he has done it a few times since becoming leader – when canvassing for the leadership he said he was willing to march with them. David Miliband said parties in opposition should behave responsibly – that got Ed the Union vote.

  3. william says:

    Winter of discontent?18 years in opposition.Ditching Clause 4.13 years in government.2010, less than 30 percent of the votes cast.You do not win general elections by backing strikes opposed ,openly,by 40 percent of voters.

  4. hometruths says:

    The unions might well win a battle with Ed Miliband, but that would put them squarely in place to be anihilated in a full on war with the government.

    The unions simply cannot win a fight with this Tory-led government. Cameron, Osborne, Gove etc all grew up as true Thatcher children in the 80s and are just gagging for their version of the miners strike, where they can finish her job once and for all. And sadly, the public would side with the government.

    Ed M has been a bit of a disappointment, but if they unions still want to be in one piece 5 years from now, they better listen to what he has to say.

  5. John P Reid says:

    Labour is only funded by the unions as the party can’t organise itslf through i’ own buerocracy to raise funds though events theqway it should, the fact ed wants to change union rules isn’t a fight it’s progress.

  6. SaneLynch says:

    Good article, one of your best. It’s a difficult situation, but I think Miliband should be echoing what Hain said. Trying his best to neither condemn or endorse strike action.

  7. Ed Milliband is lukewarm over the public sector strikes and wants to use the ‘Refounding Labour’ consultation to ‘weaken the grip of the unions’ on the party.

    Is any of this really a surprise? Red Ed has shown himself to be washed out pink Ed at best for some time now.

    ‘Refounding Labour’, to which I contributed as a member of UNITY and a former member of Stoke Central CLP, seems to be yet another of those ‘consultations’ where the party hierarchy has decided what is wants to hear before asking any questions.

    As for the strikes, the rhetoric used by Bob Crow and other union leaders may have been a little overcooked to say the least, but the cause itself is sound. The attack on pensions, working conditions and job security for public sector workers has nothing to do with cutting the deficit and everything to so with a long term Tory plan to ‘roll back the state.’

    A Labour leader with a bit of fire in his or her belly would back anyone who fights by legal means against this cruel project. In the New Statesman last week Mark Serwotka is quoted as saying that ‘if you fight in life, you’re not guaranteed to win. But if you never fight, you lose every time.’

    A clever man like Ed Milliband should know that you can’t fight let alone win by staying sat on the fence

  8. Jim Monaghan says:

    I have no problem with the leader of Labour being reluctant to support strikes. That is a tactical position based on the fact that he has to be an electable proposition in a few years. Most Labour members will take part in, or support, the strikes anyway. Milliband has not said that they shouldnt, he correctly pointed out in an earlier speech that it was for the unions to decide.

    My problem is that we see, once again, a lack of good tactical advice on the main issue, i.e. beating the tories. Ed should be criticising the way that the coalition have handled the negotiations, in particular Danny Alexanders comments last week that appeared to say that they wouldnt budge in negotiations.

    The tories would happily hand Alexander out to dry, he was foolish, he could be attacked for causing anger, blowing the negotiations and on the fact that he ius inexperienced and not fit for the job (his previous job was press officer for a zoo or a them park or something).

    It may be that he has criticised them, but by including those criticisms in wider comments with better headlines, the point would be missed.

    This is happening too often, whoever is doing the planning and the press attacks for Labour is missing opportiunities to land punches because they are focussed on the defensive.

  9. Mike Homfray says:

    My concern is more whether the strikes will have any realistic possibility of achieving their aim alongside the possible impact on those whose support we seek in opposing the speed and depth of cuts
    The worst scenario is a long period of strikes, the Government doing what they intended to do anyway, and public support dwindling through being inconvenienced.
    I wonder if everyone who is going on strike had joined an anti-cuts pressure group or done something to try and change the climate of opinion, whether this would be more constructive?

  10. Sure, Ed shouldn’t be picking a fight with the unions.

    But he definitely shouldn’t be picking fights with Teachers. I’m disgusted by the lack of support that’s being offered to public sector workers who are being shafted by the Coalition.

    When I hear that the likes of Peter Hain and Sadiq Khan are using weasel words to avoid showing support for public sector workers it makes me ashamed to be a member of the LP.

    Ashamed.

    These strikes aren’t being called by the “Unions” they’re being called by the members of those unions. And they’re being called because the Government is seeking to make the public sector pay for an economic crisis that was in large measure created by the private sector.

    If the Labour Party’s role isn’t to defend people who are being shafted by government, I have to ask my self what the flippin point of the Labour Party is, and why the blazes I continue to belong to it.

  11. Jim Monaghan says:

    Mike, unions need to carry out their own tactics and negotiations outside of any pressure group or party. Its about delivering for their members not about overall campaigning. The strikes are not one thing, the teachers in england and wales are on a different pension scheme from PCS members and are in different negotiations, local government employees (mainly unison members) are in another pension scheme and different negotiations. Campaign groups and parties can help and support strikes or union action, but its no substitute. No union takes action without consideration and the consent of their members.

  12. Henrik says:

    The major tactical issue the proposed wave of strikes raises is that they will mostly be held by public sector workers. Whether rightly or wrongly, the growing narrative is that the public sector is overmanned, overpaid and has amazingly generous pension provisions by comparison with the private sector, which has had a very hard time recently and has seen its earning power and pension provisions eaten away – and generally blames Labour for that.

    The associated narrative is that Labour, as a party, is 100% supportive of public sector workers, ‘media luvvies’, immigrants and ‘social parasites’ – i.e. the long-term unemployed, benefit claimants, asylum seekers, all that. Again, this may or may not be true, but I do sense it’s the media – and popular – narrative which is developing.

    These are two powerful narratives and they are reinforced by calls to ‘beat the Tories’ and a perception that Labour would welcome bad economic news. This both distracts Labour from the single most important task it has before it – to articulate a vision of why folk should consider voting for them (and, again, ‘because we’re not Tory scum’ is probably not a valid vision) and also makes it hard for strategic thinkers inside the Party to prepare the Party itself for the reconstruction it now requires if it is to reconnect, first with itself and then with the electorate.

  13. Sam says:

    Good article, liked it a lot.

    The thing is, Ed seems to cling to this idea that he has to avoid being labelled a puppet of the unions. Could be true, the general public knows a lot less about trade unionism than it did and membership is lower than it used to be. But he isn’t avoiding that portrayal, whether made by Cameron or the right-wing press. As long as unions fund Labour, anti-trade union forces will use it so sling mud at Labour. He really has nothing to lose by actually supporting the strikes and tackling the government on pensions, but he doesn’t want to because he’s basically in favour of them – a key reason why striking workers are about to fall out with him.

    It’s all very well to talk about funding the party in other ways, but Labour is at risk of losing support from the trade union movement as it is. Lose the link and Labour loses its natural appeal when compared to the Lib Dems and the Tories. By pursuing a strategy of “benign toryism”, Labour surrender control of the shaping of debate to the Right, who grow stronger and stronger in the absence of determined political criticism.

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