No summer love-in for Ed Miliband as the union dinosaurs bite back

Inside Westminster: The dinosaurs want to preserve their ossified structures, and their power in the Labour Party

Share
Related Topics

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 Embarrassingly, Labour has dropped its disciplinary action because key witnesses have withdrawn their original claims that Unite signed up Labour members without their knowledge.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.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

If children are obese then blame food manufacturers, not Zoella

Jane Merrick
Amos Yee arrives with his father at the State courts in Singapore on March 31  

Singapore's arrest of a 16-year-old YouTuber is all you need to know about Lee Kuan Yew's legacy

Noah Sin
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat