TUC conference: Ed Miliband blinks first in Labour's face-off with the unions

Labour leader lavishes praise in speech at TUC conference but opposition to his reforms expected to force rethink

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Ed Miliband may water down his plans to dilute the trade unions’ power inside Labour amid threats by some unions to sabotage his shake-up of the way they fund the party.

Today Mr Miliband received only polite applause when he wooed the unions in a speech to the TUC conference by promising that a Labour Government would stamp out “Victorian” employment practices that exploited workers.

In private talks with union leaders in the margins of the Bournemouth conference, he struggled to win their backing for his plan for their members to actively “opt in” to funding Labour rather than being affiliated en bloc by their union as at present.

The strong opposition may force the Labour leader to shelve proposals to go further by cutting the unions’ 50 per cent share of the vote at Labour’s annual conference and their one third share when the party chooses its leader. Although he has not set out specific plans to do so, Blairites hoped these wider changes would form part of his package. A Labour spokesman said the right “sequencing” was to assess the impact of the union affiliation reform before deciding its “consequences” in other areas. Later Mr Miliband spoke of a “step by step” approach.

One possible compromise is for him to abandon or delay other curbs on union power in return for his proposed switch to a system of “opting in” on fees. But even that looks in jeopardy at present. Some unions may refuse  to hand over their membership lists to Labour.

Dave Prentis, leader of the second largest union Unison, told the LabourList website: “We will not put an additional burden on people joining the union. We’re organising a national recruitment campaign in October. We are not putting more on our application form saying: ‘Do you want to be an associate member of the Labour Party?’. It’s up to the Labour Party to recruit Labour members.”

In his speech, Mr Miliband urged the unions to have the “courage to change” and said he was “absolutely determined” to secure his plan to change affiliation fees. But he avoided a head-on confrontation by telling the unions their members are “the backbone of Britain”. He pledged legislation to end the “epidemic of zero hours contracts”, which put workers on stand-by without any guarantee of work, but stopped short of union demands to abolish them completely.

He promised that Labour would do everything possible to promote the living wage, which is higher than the national minimum wage. He hinted at keeping the East Coast rail line in public ownership and taking a tough line against new free schools.

Mr Miliband promised that Labour, unlike the Conservatives, would ensure a “fair recovery”. He said: “The next election is a high stakes election. High stakes for your members. High stakes for working people. High stakes for the country.”

Union anxiety over Labour’s policies surfaced in a question-and-answer session in which one TUC delegate urged Mr Miliband to end the party’s “contradictions” on spending cuts.

Janice Godrich of the Public and Commercial Services Union asked him pointedly: “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.” Later Ms Godrich said: “It is incredibly disappointing that, in front of an audience of delegates representing more than six million workers, Ed Miliband failed to offer the alternative people so desperately want and need.”

Miliband's speech: Highlights

What he said

"We are going to have to build a new kind of Labour Party. A new relationship with individual trade union members."

What he meant

"We can no longer justify a system in which union leaders pluck a figure out of the air to decide how many members to affiliate to Labour."

What he said

"It is a massive challenge."

What he meant

"OK, Labour may take a financial hit. But it will be worth it to modernise the party and do the right thing."

What he said

"We must have the courage to change. Change can happen. Change must happen."

What he meant

"I can't retreat now. It would underline  the Conservatives' two slogans - that we are 'same old Labour' and I am weak."

What he said

"It is you who have been telling me year after year about a politics that is detached from the lives of working people."

What he meant

"Trust me. I'm on your side. Would you rather have had my brother as Labour leader?"

What he said

"We have a prime minister who writes you and your members off...Back to the enemy within."

What he meant

"Back me. You’ve got nowhere else to go. Would your members' interests really be better served by another Tory-led government?"