Tom Walker reports from the Labour Party conference in Manchester
Ed Miliband’s speech to Labour Party conference on Tuesday of this week was mainly about himself.
It hit its lowest point when he compared himself to Benjamin Disraeli, the arch-imperialist 19th century Tory prime minister.
“140 years ago another leader of the opposition gave a speech,” Miliband said.
“He was a Tory. Don’t let that put you off. Let us remember what Disraeli was celebrated for... patriotism, loyalty, dedication to the common cause. I believe in that spirit of One Nation.”
Most of the real controversy at the conference focused on the other Ed—shadow chancellor Ed Balls. He has made sure Labour continues to back the Tories’ public sector pay freeze—a policy that Unite union leader Len McCluskey called “crazy”.
Before the conference McCluskey said he would “kick the New Labour cuckoos out of our nest”. Yet part of Unite’s wider strategy is to “reclaim” Labour by recruiting large numbers of union members to the party. This message came through at a Unite fringe meeting on Monday of this week.
By then, speaking after Ed Balls’ speech to conference and standing beside shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, McCluskey was more conciliatory. “I thought Ed’s speech was a good one,” he said. “A really, really good one.”
Ed Balls had told the conference, “On spending, pay and pensions, there will be difficult decisions in the future from which we will not flinch.”
McCluskey called for protests and civil disobedience against the coalition, and re-emphasised his opposition to the pay freeze. But he also said, “We’re not the only people in the Labour Party and the leadership have other constituencies they have to respond to.”
This was challenged from the floor by Marcus Wade, a Labour member and Unite branch secretary from York. He said Ed Miliband “squirms” when David Cameron mentions Unite at prime minister’s questions.
“As a trade unionist of 40-odd years, I’m sick of it,” he said. “They’re our voice in parliament. Why aren’t they defending us better? They take our money—they should be standing up for us.” In response, McCluskey argued the union is “trying to re-engage the Labour leadership”.
When McCluskey repeated his praise for Ed Balls’ speech at a joint union rally, Unison union leader Dave Prentis took a different view. He agreed the main fight is against the Tories and Liberals.
But he added, “You say what a great speech Ed Balls made today. But where was the recognition, where was the compassion, for what people are going through now?
“For Labour in opposition to agree with the Tory pay freeze is absolutely beyond the pale. We need Labour now out on the streets with us on 20 October.”
Labour conference hears very few motions—a maximum of four from the unions and four chosen by party members.
One of this year’s key motions was from Unison on the pay freeze. But Labour’s leadership watered it down to “note” the pay freeze instead of opposing it.
The leadership has long felt free to ignore any motions it dislikes. But a vote can still cause embarrassment—which is why Tony Blair all but abolished them.
Just a few hours of the conference are spent debating policy. There are vast gaps for fringe meetings. And the rest is given over to lengthy speeches from shadow cabinet members.
This is where policy is really made. And it’s partly how the leadership tied itself in knots over whether it will repeal the Tories’ NHS bill. A motion on the subject is due to be debated later in the week.
But Labour did manage to announce various right wing policies. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls backed the Tories’ public sector pay freeze. And shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne said Labour would cut the welfare budget.
The vast number of fringe meetings at Labour conference makes it possible for different wings of the party to live in their own distinct bubbles.
As a union delegate you can go to dozens of union events and left wing meetings. You could come away thinking it had been quite a left wing conference.
Meanwhile the right wing of the party goes to events like the Association of British Bookmakers drinks reception. Labour functionaries handed out union jacks for delegates to wave during a session celebrating the Olympics.
And at right wing group Progress’ rally, David Miliband dropped such pearls of wisdom as, “Realism is our anchor but idealism is our oxygen.”