One of the undoubted low points of Ed Miliband’s leadership thus far was his response the the #j30 strikes. The now infamous ‘robot interview‘ in which he repeated the same line about both sides ‘getting round the table and negotiating’ again and again pretty much summed it up. It was unthinking and made no effort to understand the issues that drove people to take the action. However, rather than learn from that, if his TUC speech is anything to go to by he seems set to continue taking that approach.
Firstly, let’s start with the good. It’s good that Ed will make an impassioned defence of the Labour-union link and he is not wrong to say that this relationship should be mature enough to accommodate disagreement (one only wishes the Labour leadership took such an adult view of policy disagreements with and among members). So far, so good. However, when it comes to the issue of strikes, Ed loses all his maturity and trades it in cheaply for calculated and deeply unprincipled posturing. He said that he did not want trade unionists to feel “passive and unwanted within the Labour Party” but he is going to struggle to make them feel wanted if he will not listen to them when they are forced to take to the picket line.
Not only does Ed wag his finger at people whose anger he claims to understand but he ends up stuck in a basic contradiction. Strikes are “wrong” but he, rhetorically at least, seems to acknowledge that it’s the government’s fault they are happening. In common parlance this is called having your cake and eating it. He doesn’t understand that the unions and their members are being pushed to the brink and beyond. Strikes are not what trade unionists want, especially in the current economic climate, when they are no doubt struggling like the rest of us to make ends meet, in fact they really are the last resort of the desperate. This is something that the other Ed, Ed Balls seems to at least understand a little better:
“We will urge the government to negotiate. Of course, you can never say in advance that there is never a justified strike, that would be ridiculous, but what we have got is a government trying to provoke confrontation.”
It is not as if even the unions want full-on support as Len McCluskey points out:
“I don’t want him to say that strikes are wrong, I want him to say that he understands. If he can’t come out in favour of the strike, he certainly should understand the resentment and the fear that people have.”
This is the key problem, the lack of understanding Ed Miliband shows towards those on strike. He makes as much attempt to understand their concerns as this government does and that is unacceptable from a Labour Leader. This is what makes his attitude worthy of the condemnation from many quarters it receives when he makes statements like this. He doesn’t see the issues that are affecting these people, he can only think in terms of his own leadership and what kind of headlines he will garner in the next morning’s newspapers. In behaving like this he is not just a prisoner of the ‘uber-Blairites’ as McCluskey says he is, but also of his own flawed mentality, lack of self-confidence and entire approach to politics. Having recently read ‘The Milibands‘ it has become quite worryingly clear that Ed is willing to sell his principles rather cheaply (for example, he didn’t vote against 90-day detention without charge, despite opposing it).
People will shrug and say ‘that’s politics’ but it was not what was promised. This leadership, he has said, will be about returning the Labour Party to its core values. His mandate was wafer-thin – though not illegitimate in my eyes – but rather than seek to solidify its position, everything done keeps it in a permanently emaciated and crisis-ridden state. Nobody is asking for the earth from Ed Miliband, all that is being asked is a little less jaw-jaw and finger-wagging and a bit more listening and understanding.
If he persists with this hard-faced, tin ear approach it is in my eyes legitimate for people in the wider country to wonder why, if Ed is so quick to ignore his own supporters, he would make the effort to listen to them other than for reasons of pure electoral advantage. If he is serious about delivering on the promises that propelled him to the position he is in, then it is time for him to listen to what people like the TUC say, rather than dismiss it out of hand.