Miliband avoided jeers and heckles at the TUC, but behind the scenes tempers are fraying

11th September, 2013 8:33 am

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.

  • Daniel Speight

    One of the differences between Labour and the other parties is the union link. When that link is weak so are the party’s policies and the more it looks like the other parties. When the link is strong so are the policies, and the party begins to live up to its name as the party of organized labour.

  • ClearBell

    Handing over data about individual union members is a non-starter. I know from experience how fearful many are about anyone knowing they are members. Sad but true: it’s becoming an almost underground movement again due to press villification and political party yah-booing.

    Suppose union membership forms could simply add more and more tick boxes ie.,

    1) do you know what affiliate means?

    2) do you care?
    3) do you mind letting the government, the press, any political party know you are member?
    4) do you care about other members?

    • MonkeyBot5000

      The problem of handing over data is utterly trivial to solve.

      Anyone who ticks the affiliation box gets sent a card to write their contact details on that folds in half and self-seals and they post it back to the party.

      The party put a link on their website to a page where you can enter a membership ID number (or something similar) to prove you’re in a union and tell them that you want to be affiliated with the party.

      No data changes hands between the union and the party.

      • DanFilson

        Paper? There are simpler ways than that. Anyone who ticks an electronic box, agrees to data transmission of details (this can be spelt out before they tick the box). There is no problem of data transmission if the person concerned specifically assents. Have you never ticked one of those “I don’t mind your passing my details on” boxes? The key is knowing consent.

        • MonkeyBot5000

          No, I’ve never ticked one of those boxes because I don’t want my inbox full of spam.

          The reason I chose paper as an example is that it doesn’t require any kind of IT project for politicians to mess up and shows you can solve the problem with minimal effort.

  • Ben Cobley

    If union members join the party they are then Labour members so I don’t really see how can be a serious debate about data. This would seem to be about union leaders trying to keep their control over the relationship between their members and the Labour Party, and using it to leverage their own power.

    That’s fair enough to an extent, but what Labour needs is for union members themselves to be having a greater relationship to the party rather than the bosses. Most unions have been in decline for some time; they are not healthy institutions for the most part and are not run very well for the most part. The relationship needs to become broader and deeper to help both Labour and the unions to become more healthy and more relevant, and that means developing greater relationships at all levels rather than leaving it all in the hands of the hob nobs at the top.

    • DanFilson

      What you say may be correct, but you try running a union on a shrinking membership base (and consequently falling revenue stream), where employers pay you little heed and your members are reluctant to take any industrial action. Not easy. The myth of union leaders wanting control over their members is typical of the media, as is the phrase “what Labour needs is … “

      • Ben Cobley

        Some fair points Dan. Myself, I feel some sympathy for union leaders. They have a tough job. But most of them do seem to be stuck in the past and old ways of doing things, hence they’re always reacting in a conservative fashion to any ideas of change. Reform is definitely needed; it’s surely just a matter of what, how, and when.

        On the point about union leaders wanting control over their members, that isn’t what I said: my point was about wanting control over the *relationship* between their members and Labour. This is crucial to the strategy of retaining/building power at a central level through the Labour Party rather than rebuilding from within and out into society. Labour is making some attempts to do the latter iteslf, but the union effort to control the party from the top threatens to undermine this.


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