When people ask Ed Miliband whether he had a good summer, he quips: “Yes – until I got back.” On his return from holiday, he realised that sniping by Labour figures who claim the party is drifting without a strategy had filled the summer news vacuum.
The vultures are circling again over his battle with the trade unions about how they fund the party. Like the Conservatives, most of the press is determined to set the reform bar so high that Mr Miliband will fail. To be fair, he has never promised that his changes would result in unions losing part of their 50 per cent share of the votes at Labour’s annual conference, or of their one-third share when the party chooses its leader. For starters, he judges, one big reform is enough: forcing union members to actively “opt in” to supporting Labour financially, rather than being affiliated en masse by their unions.
Union leaders regard Mr Miliband’s sensible attempt to modernise the Labour-union link as a violent invasion of their territory. The dinosaurs want to preserve their ossified structures, and their power in the party – even though persuading their members to join Labour would give them a bigger voice inside it.
Union leaders like the media limelight. They are normally ignored, unless they threaten a strike. They like getting on the telly because it shows their members they are “doing something”. They desperately need new recruits after seeing their total membership drop from 12 million in 1979 to 6.2 million today, only one in four of the workforce.
True, Mr Miliband’s plan to reform the relationship could have been handled better. He rushed into it because of allegations about Unite’s attempts to secure its favoured candidate as Labour candidate in Falkirk. Embarrassingly, Labour has dropped its disciplinary action because key witnesses have withdrawn their original claims that Unite signed up Labour members without their knowledge. It’s messy. But it doesn’t mean that the Miliband reform plan is wrong.
Nor should the unions interpret his proposal as an attack on them. Mr Miliband did not pick this fight. He felt he had to act on the original allegations about Falkirk. He is not his brother David, who might well have launched a more wide-ranging review of Labour’s union links if he hadn’t been pipped at the post in the 2010 leadership election by Ed – thanks, of course, to the unions’ 33 per cent share of the electoral college. Ed won 20 per cent of that, David only 13 per cent.
Ed’s pro-union instincts have not changed since, so the unions’ over-reaction to his proposed reform is puzzling. He got a lukewarm reception at the TUC conference on Tuesday despite pressing several buttons it wanted him to hit, including a pledge to curb zero hours contracts. Some union leaders seem to care more about Labour’s internal workings than the working conditions of their members.
Union bosses are in no mood to help Mr Miliband. Some are refusing to hand over their membership lists to Labour to help the party recruit. There was a frosty meeting between Mr Miliband and union leaders behind closed doors in Bournemouth after his speech.
Yet Mr Miliband exudes calm in the storm swirling around him. He is confident he can win the argument on the way unions fund the party. He was cheered by a YouGov poll for the Labour Uncut blog, published in The Independent, showing that 60 per cent of the members of Labour-affiliated unions support his reform, with only 20 per cent against. That suggests that union bosses speak for themselves rather their members when they oppose his change.
Mr Miliband faces an uphill struggle. But to paraphrase the Conservatives’ 1983 slogan about the British economy, he is on the right track and cannot afford to turn back.