A year ago, a man perceived to be in the shadow of his brother stepped out of the darkness to take his crown. Ed Miliband, wonkish but competent, found himself on the stage at the 2010 Labour conference, lifted there by Labour’s union-affiliated members.
The previous 10 minutes had been full of tension as each round of voting was revealed and another candidate eliminated. There were audible gasps in the conference hall as the older Miliband, whom everyone expected to win, was beaten at the final hurdle and turned to his brother to offer a familial hug.
It was widely agreed that the union vote won Ed the leadership, specifically the GMB, Unison and Unite, who cast thousands of votes for the younger brother. They were criticised latterly for sending voting papers to members that indicated the leaderships’ choice of Ed for leader.
So having been anointed as the unions’ man in the big chair, Ed Miliband immediately set about resisting the label and distancing himself from the unions’ leadership. The hot issues for the major unions have been cuts to public spending and services, and public sector pensions. Miliband has repeatedly and publicly told them to negotiate on pensions and not to strike while negotiations are ongoing.
Last week at the TUC conference, Miliband made the same appeal, saying it was wrong to strike over pensions and more important to negotiate, despite union leaders’ protests that negotiations were dead in the water.
This positioning is important to Miliband as leader of the Labour party. Even with the Murdoch empire in turmoil, the perception is that any Labour leader must keep the unions at arm’s length, even when it was they who placed him there.
It was no surprise then that the TUC reception for Ed was frosty at best. He was heckled and given only polite applause during his big finish. But he will have left a happy man, satisfied that he will not be seen as anyone’s lackey.
This position, that the party of labour must disavow its working and organised brothers and sisters in order to be elected, was wrought in the Eighties by Thatcher and enacted by each Labour leader since Neil Kinnock berated Militant at the 1985 Labour conference.
Thatcher’s achievements in taking on the unions were many. Her trade union reforms made it harder for organised labour to strike but it was her rhetoric which did the most damage. Her use of the phrase “the enemy within” struck a chord with a public that remembered the winter of discontent. Imagery of that period in the late seventies when local services were disrupted was used liberally in the mid-Eighties to reinforce the point. By 1984, the main objective of Thatcher’s year-long confrontation with the National Union of Mineworkers was not to reform the coal industry but to break union power completely.
The result has been seen over the last two decades. Whereas millions were once union members, now only thousands are. Where once the unions were the bedrock of working people’s lives, providing support during hard times as well as campaigning for better pay and conditions, now their leaders are perceived as political dinosaurs, barracking from the sidelines.
But, the unions do still represent thousands of working people. They often represent the working poor, people who do the lowest paid jobs that many of us would never consider even in the darkest of times. And in our modern world, the workers they represent are often low-paid women in part-time jobs, who work nightshifts in factories or cleaning offices. These workers without their unions would be voiceless, powerless.
So isn’t it perverse that the leader of the Labour Party, which was founded on the backs of organised people to protect their rights and freedoms in work, feels the need to reject the organisations that seek to represent those people now?
Ed Miliband’s election last year brought huge optimism in the trade union movement which felt, finally, it had grabbed the heart of its party back after years of New Labour triangulation and rejection.
But they have only been disappointed, watching yet another Labour leader distance themselves for fear of upsetting ‘the public’. And this is the heart of the matter: just as popular rhetoric in the press describes public sector workers as though they are not also citizens, voters and taxpayers, union members seem also not to be part of that benighted group, ‘the public’.
So if Labour isn’t talking to low-paid union-represented workers and it’s not talking to public sector staff - from police officers to job centre workers and nurses - then who is it that the party seeks to represent?
Labour Party Lost
With Ed Miliband distancing himself from the trade unions, who does the Labour Party represent?
by Lucy Sweetman (20 September 2011)