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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Miliband enters the lions den and gets away with it - just about


True, there was no standing ovation. The TUC doesn’t do ecstatic. But in a speech sandwiched between debates on low paid youth - enlivened by the fact that the speakers were mostly young workers on low pay - and on rail privatisation, Miliband repeated that he was “absolutely determined” to reform the way union members donate to Labour. And survived.

Otherwise he dwelt heavily on the economic inequality preoccupying an audience so pragmatic that the biggest applause came when he declared that “we’ll say to any business: if you want a major government contract, you must provide apprenticeships to the next generation"

In places it was oddly pedagogic – confiding that “living standards have been falling for longer than at any time since 1870” and that "Britain is currently 159th in the international league table of investment.”

This may need a little amplification since to the ignorant it seems to put us in the same division as – say Somalia, North Korea, and, er, Greece.

And he took his passion for invoking 19th Century Conservative prime ministers even further yesterday with an unexpected eulogy of Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby. Derby (or “Red Ed” as Miliband fancifully referred to him in his one joke of the day) had been the “first man to legislate to allow trade unions in this country”. And had marvelled at the “almost perfect military discipline” of an 1867 union march (the sort, he didn’t say, that these days Miliband would be in big  trouble for joining).

Like the Labour leader’s favourite, Disraeli - and unlike David Cameron who “doesn’t just write you off but oozes contempt for you from every pore” - Lord Derby was a “one nation” Conservative. Does Miliband ever wonder if he isn’t overworking the “one nation” theme? Apparently not.

The 1945 Attlee government - the only mentionable Labour administration these days - was a “one nation” government. And the changes to the Labour link were needed to build - a bit of a tautology - “a one nation country".

Maybe having a woman TUC general secretary and president helped? Asking photographers not to obstruct delegates, the president, Lesley Mercer, added - in a kindly tone that might have eluded some of her male predecessors - “and I would ask delegates to tolerate the photographers who are union members doing their job".

The Q and A - during which Miliband’s tone was notably livelier and less monotonous than in the speech itself - was polite. Even if PCS president Janice Godrich was clearly disappointed by the answer to her blunt “are you for or against austerity?" which was roughly speaking: "against, but in practice we have to get the deficit down to be credible".

Worryingly for those wanting reductions in the unions’ block vote and say in electing leaders and parliamentary candidates - which Miliband did not mention - Unite leader Len McCluskey was quite nice about him.  But Unison’s Dave Prentis said all this talk about reforming the party link was “a turn-off”. So there was some traction after all.