Labour leaders used to come to the TUC to talk a bit left and to re-engage with the “grassroots”, as they like to call it.
Tony Blair changed that and used to come to lecture. Ed Miliband followed in his footsteps this week. He was repeatedly heckled as he denounced strikes and warned unions that they were losing their “relevance”.
His message was bracketed by criticism of the government. But if the government needs to change and business needs to change, he argued, so do the unions. And not by becoming more militant.
Just in case there was any doubt, he offered, “I sometimes hear Labour opposes every cut. Some of you may wish that was true. But it’s not.”
It was even done with a quip—“By now maybe you’re thinking, hang on, we’ve seen this movie before. He’s about to get to the bit where he tells us to ‘modernise or die’. You’re half right.” Nobody laughed.
He reiterated his position on the strikes on 30 June. He said, “I do believe it was a mistake for strikes to happen. I continue to believe that.”
That produced the first shouts of “shame”. And just in case anyone hadn’t got the point, he went on: “In truth strikes are always a failure—a national failure.”
In the question and answer session, each question was met with applause. Each answer was met with silence at best, and quite often derision.
Urged to “stand up on the side of hundreds of thousands of workers whose pensions are under attack” and to “stick up” for public sector workers, Miliband responded, “The best thing that can be done is to avoid industrial action”. He was heckled again.
When asked about reversing the change from RPI inflation to CPI that will slash pensions, Miliband said, “I don’t want to become Nick Clegg.” Well, we all need something to aspire to. He meant he wouldn’t promise to reverse it.
On education it was worse. “Profit has no place in education,” Miliband pronounced. But he followed up by praising academies and accepting free schools. “What you need is academies, free schools and other schools working together—much better together.”
Again the shout of “shame” came from the audience, more widespread this time.
Miliband sugared the pill by telling the unions that “our link is secure enough, mature enough, to deal with disagreement. It is about respect and shared values.”
But it isn’t clear what the shared values are. Indeed the Labour spin machine, a little smaller these days but still as smug, was letting it be known that the party wasn’t worried by a hard time from the TUC. The Labour machine wants to show Miliband isn’t “Red Ed”.
And that is the problem. The unions pay the money and hold up the party. Yet they get little in return. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis was sanguine. “I am a realist,” he said. “I see his point of view and it is not mine. We do expect our Labour Party to stand alongside us if our members are forced into industrial action.”
GMB general secretary Paul Kenny was unconcerned, saying, “I thought it was a pretty good speech.”
There was hope that, in opposition, Labour would change and return to the unions. It hasn’t. Yet Miliband is still aiming to weaken the union link at the Labour Party conference.
There was even continuity at the banal level. It was a trope of the last Labour government that, when it ran out of ideas, someone would announce something about broadband. So to get the sullen crowd on side, Miliband reaffirmed his commitment to broadband. He just about got out the room as the applause stopped. And this is a Labour leader after a year in opposition.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka caught the mood, saying Miliband is “turning his back on the union members who voted him as leader in their thousands”.
“His refusal to back his natural supporters is a slap in the face and will be massively counterproductive for him—but it will not dent our determination to fight to protect pensions, jobs, pay and public services.”
RMT general secretary Bob Crow added, “A Labour leader who doesn’t stand by the workers is on a one way ticket to oblivion.”
Any sense of a fight would have got Miliband support. But Labour is still trapped in the think-tanks and the focus groups. The unions might wonder with some justification what they are paying for. But at least they aren’t taking his advice on whether it’s right to strike.