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: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most