Ed Miliband will have been relatively happy with his speech at the TUC yesterday – although far less so with the meeting he had with trade union leaders afterwards.
The reaction to Miliband’s speech in the hall yesterday was perhaps as good as could have been expected in the circumstances. That the Labour leader wasn’t booed, heckled and jeered offstage was evidently galling for a large chunk of Britain’s erstwhile hacks and scribblers who had planned to while away the rest of the week talking about Miliband’s leadership and public spats. The lack of boos was instructive, and so those paragons of journalistic virtue were forced to resort to talking instead of “stony silence”, which is probably fair.
It wasn’t “enthusiastic silence”, put it that way.
Yet if the Labour leader was not subjected to abuse yesterday – and I suspect that’s due to discipline on behalf of trade union delegations who don’t want to hand the media a stick to hit Miliband (and themselves) with – he didn’t receive much in the way of cheers either.
The applause was, as the press delighted in retelling, “muted”. It came at all the right points in Miliband’s speech, but without much enthusiasm. That’s rather telling when you consider what Miliband was pushing yesterday – an end to exploitative zero hours contracts, a living wage, apprenticeships and house building. As one senior trade unionist said to be last night, “We’ve waited years for a Labour leader to say all that on policy, and everyone is annoyed with him about something else.”
Indeed. In different circumstances there might have been great enthusiasm for Miliband’s message at the TUC, but not right now. Affiliated unions feel that their funding – and their members relationships with the party – have been delegitimised. And whilst the lack of outright challenge to Miliband in the hall yesterday might suggest that the unions are open to his reforms – frosty meetings behind the scenes with senior trade unionists suggest otherwise.
Some reform will come out of this process – it must – but there are numerous impasses that Miliband says must be crossed and the unions say can’t be. For example there’s plenty of noise in the papers today about whether the unions might keep 50% of the votes at party conference – although I doubt that’s a red line for many. Conference decides little in the modern Labour Party, and so 50% of the vote there amounts to little more than 50% of nothing more than symbolism.
No, the real impasse is over membership data, which is where the success Miliband’s reforms is likely to hinge. The unions – as Dave Prentis told me in our interview yesterday - can’t and won’t give their members details to the Labour Party as it’s an “outside body”, which would contravene (Labour’s) Data Protection Act. Yet Miliband says that he wants Labour to build a relationship with individual trade unionists, which means having the ability to contact them. In the past complex computer systems that allow moderated communication between Labour and affiliated trade unionists have been mooted. No doubt such complicated solutions will circulate again in the coming months, but,
judging by reports of a terse and uncompromising TULO meeting between Miliband and General Secretaries yesterday, the impasse is likely to continue.
In short, Miliband went to the TUC, and a major public fallout was averted. But behind the scenes the row rages on, and tempers remain heated. Whilst on policy the unions haven’t had as much to cheer from a Labour leader for years, on party reform it’s doubtful they’ve ever been so far apart. Labour Party conference is less than two weeks away, special conference is only six months away – and the general election is less than two years away. None will be a success unless Miliband and the unions can reach a settlement of sorts – and the chill winds blowing through Bournemouth yesterday afternoon suggest that might be some way off yet.