Ed Miliband supported the public-sector workers who went on strike yesterday as a clear divide opened up between him and David Cameron over the industrial action.
The Labour leader had been accused of "sitting on the fence" over the pensions dispute and dodging questions over whether he endorsed industrial action. He did not support a day of action over pensions by four trade unions in June and was heckled at the TUC conference in September.
Tory MPs claimed Mr Miliband scored an own goal by backing yesterday's action. But a survey by TNS-BRMB shows public opinion is split – 40 per cent believe public-sector workers were right to strike to protect their pensions, while 37 per cent said the Government should continue reforms.
Mr Miliband surprised MPs by going on the offensive at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, asking David Cameron: "Why do you think so many decent, hard-working public-sector workers, many of whom have never been on strike before, feel the Government simply isn't listening?"
Accusing the Prime Minister of "spoiling for a fight", Mr Miliband told him: "Unlike you, I'm not going to demonise the dinner lady, the cleaner, the nurse – people who earn in a week [sic] what the Chancellor pays for his annual skiing holiday." (Later, sources made clear he had meant to say "in a year").
Mr Cameron branded him "irresponsible, left-wing and weak". He added: "The leader of the Labour Party has taken sides today. He is on the side of the trade union leader that wants strikes not negotiations, on the side of the people who want to disrupt our schools, disrupt our borders, disrupt our country."
Later Labour sources denied that Mr Miliband had given his "unequivocal backing" to the unions, saying he still believed yesterday's strike was a sign of failure and that both sides should give ground. They insisted his stance was entirely consistent with his opposition to the action in June, when pensions talks were still under way.
Mr Miliband's tougher stance followed discussions in the Shadow Cabinet about how to respond to yesterday's strikes. Some members were wary of being seen to side with the unions when they were disrupting services. But Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, favoured a more supportive stance. Some Blairite MPs believe the Labour leader has adopted a risky approach that could put him on the wrong side of public opinion.
But one ally of Mr Miliband said: "He was being himself. He said what he has thought all along."Reuse content