Unions threats give 'Red Ed' reason to blush

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

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The Independent Online

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.