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

Political Editor

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?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent