Unions threats give 'Red Ed' reason to blush

Our blogger reports on a TUC congress that exposed tetchy relations between Labour and the unions

Share

Ed Miliband has a problem. I’m not talking about voters mistaking him for his brother, or a crackers-obsessed animated man – this problem is potentially greater in significance. He might be called ‘David’ and ‘Wallace’, but his other nickname is much more damaging. ‘Red Ed’ has been undermined by his relationship with trade unions ever since he became leader of the opposition two years ago.

Without leaping to conclusions, this is probably why his right-hand man, shadow chancellor Ed Balls, gave the Labour Party’s annual key-note speech at the TUC Congress on Tuesday. With this year’s event particularly focused on the economy, it was an opportunity for Balls to explain his alternatives to austerity. He didn’t really take it.

He used his address to criticise the government and state broadly that he could provide an alternative. To be fair to him, he outlined the construction and banking sectors as areas which he would hone in on, but he failed to give any further details. Moreover, the frosty relationship his party currently shares with the unions loomed throughout.

It’s a predicament that has become increasingly problematic for his leader, Ed Miliband. He was prevented from milking the Downing Street dinners affair when the Conservatives transformed the scandal into a general discussion about party funding. The reality is that none of Westminster’s main three parties seem to be financed in ways which they particularly wish to speak up about.

Politically, the Labour Party is currently between a rock and a hard place. The Conservative line that the union vote was critical to Milband’s election as leader of his party is damaging – they make no secret of the fact that they now expect his help. A step too far from the unions could destroy Labour’s core vote, but a step too close would be equally problematic. To make matters worse, the centre ground hardly feels comfortable for the Eds at the moment, either.

When the shadow chancellor entered the room for his speech yesterday, the word ‘tomatoes’ practically echoed around the room as delegates joked about a pelting. He struggled to tackle his party’s relationship with the TUC, speaking of his ‘pride’ to ‘stand side by side’ with delegates, before accepting that the two sides would inevitably disagree. He was, naturally, most comfortable when winding up David Cameron, Nick Clegg and – of course – George Osborne.

Though the speech lacked substance, it went down okay with the audience. On the other hand, delegates reacted coolly to the question session that followed. One particular audience member was applauded for asking how Labour “could possibly support a public sector pay freeze”. Balls’ response was an explanation about priorities – “jobs before pay”, as he put it. “Why not both?” an angry delegate heckled, as frustrated mumbles swept the hall.

Unions currently have two roles in Ed Miliband’s life. First and currently foremost, they act as the vulnerable Achilles heel of his political credibility. However, the second could turn these troubles around. Labour is strongly linked with an active grassroots network of supporters. The party elite must maintain its relationship with this base if it is to win a general election.

At a congress which will undoubtedly be remembered for the proposal of general strike action, any take on the idea was largely absent from both Ed Balls’ speech, and the low-key appearance of his boss on Monday evening. Balls did cover the great elephant, but hardly in a diffusing fashion. The standard ‘not what we or the public want’ statement preceded a list of justifications for disruption.

History proves that the spotlight on trade unions is at its most intense when strikes are called. Should more disruptions take place, the Conservatives are ready to pounce on Labour’s links with the TUC. The Labour leader has work to do – standing in the middle won’t work forever.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: will this be the election result? And other Questions To Which The Answer Is No

John Rentoul
David Cameron visiting a primary school last year  

The only choice in schools is between the one you want and the ones you don’t

Jane Merrick
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn