Ed Miliband wooed the trade unions today by telling them their members are “the backbone of Britain” as he tried to build support for his plans to reform the party's links with them.
Addressing the TUC conference in Bournemouth, Mr Miliband promised that a Labour Government would sweep away "Victorian" employment practices which harmed workers. He pledged legislation to end the "exploitation of zero hours contracts," which put workers on standby without any guarantee of work, but stopped short of union demands to abolish them completely.
He also promised that Labour would do everything possible to promote the living wage, which is higher than the national minimum wage, including forcing firms winning government contracts to pay it. He hinted at plans to renationalise the railways and promised a tough line against expanding free schools.
Mr Miliband won polite applause for a 20-minute speech without notes in which he defended his plans for union members to "opt in" to funding Labour rather than being automatically affiliated en bloc by their union leaders.
But union anxiety over Labour's stance surfaced in a question-and-answer session in which one TUC delegate urged Mr Miliband to come off the fence on spending cuts. Janice Godrich from the PCS union asked him pointedly: "Can we get a clear answer? Are you for or against austerity?"
In his most awkward moment, Mr Miliband said he was "against austerity" but added: "I am not going to pretend there will be easy choices for a Labour Government." He would not make a list of policy promises that he would break. Although he pledged that Labour would be different to the Conservatives, he admitted: "We also have to be credible and get the deficit down."
Miliband aides denied that his pledge to improve working conditions was a quid pro quo for forcing through his reforms.
As the Labour leader held private talks with union bosses after his speech, there were signs that he may back away from other moves to dilute the unions' influence. Blairites want him to cut the unions' 50 per cent share of the votes at Labour's annual conference and its one-third share when the party chooses its leader.
Mr Miliband tried to reassure the unions Labour is on their side, telling the conference: "The next election is a high stakes election. High stakes for your members. High stakes for working people. High stakes for the country."