Amol Rajan: The unions backed Miliband but can he back them?

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It's good to know the Trades Union Congress (TUC) reads this newspaper.

Last week I wrote that the Labour Party was founded as the parliamentary representation of the unionised poor. Now that unions are a much weaker part of society, what, I asked, is the Labour Party for?

The next day, delegates at the TUC conference heckled Labour leader Ed Miliband for daring not to support strike action, as if to reinforce the point that he no longer speaks for them.

Naturally, I take this as a sign that i is top of the morning briefing pile presented to union honchos. It also illuminated a problem not just for Miliband, who rose to the leadership on the back of the unions, but for his party. Labour are becoming more dependent on the unions just as their influence and popularity is waning nationally.

It is curious that for much of living memory the unions were seen to act in the national interest, not as mere ideologues. A few misty-eyed lefties think their power peaked with the General Strike of 1926, which protested against declining wages and conditions in mines. Certainly, there has been no instance of union solidarity in Britain to match it; but ultimately the unions were defeated then, and the strike was unsuccessful.

Ernest Bevin personified another peak. A brilliant Minister of Labour during the wartime coalition, he went on to be a distinguished Foreign Secretary in Clement Attlee's government, and was perhaps the prime example of a union leader respected for his service to the nation as a whole.

The zenith of union power was 1974, when the unions brought down Edward Heath's government. But as my colleague Andy McSmith argued in his seminal history of the 1980s, No Such Thing as Society, Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch's clampdowns on miners and print unions respectively did violence to the cause of organised labour from which it is yet to – and may never – recover.

Labour politicians like Miliband have to deal with the world as it is, not as they feel it ought to be.

Unfortunately for them, this means the modern party can only acquire a national mandate through the persistent negation of its founding principle. Tony Blair understood this, but it may pose an insoluble problem for Miliband.

More importantly, it is a dastardly prospect for our atomised poor, whose precious bond with institutionalised democracy has never, since the dawn of universal suffrage, been as frail.