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Unions are our last defence, and Ed Miliband must join their fight

(15 Posts)
ttosca Wed 14-Sep-11 22:33:51

No more 'distancing' or posturing: we urgently need a radical alternative to austerity, and Miliband has to stand by his allies

Tony Blair never had the happiest of relationships with the trade unions. "When I addressed the TUC they were polite, but not much more than that," he wrote in his memoir, A Journey. "We both knew what we thought of each other … They couldn't understand why I was doing what I was doing; and I couldn't understand why they couldn't see it was the way of the future."

His successor but one, however, is a self-confessed admirer of the trade unions, without whose support he would not have been elected as Labour leader a year ago. Ed Miliband spent much time and effort wooing union bosses and activists: as James Macintyre and I reveal in our biography of him, in the run-up to the crucial vote by the Unite union's national policy committee in July 2010, Miliband rang several undecideds on the committee to personally persuade them to endorse him (having obtained their phone numbers from a friendly source inside Unite).

But there was no politeness from the unions on Tuesday when Miliband was heckled and jeered as he delivered his first speech to the TUC. It was a largely conciliatory address – except for his needlessly provocative condemnation of the one-day strike over pay and pensions by teachers and civil servants on 30 June. "While negotiations were going on, I do believe it was a mistake for strikes to happen," he said, to cries of "shame" from the audience. "I continue to believe that."

Ouch. It perhaps wasn't what he was expecting. "It doesn't do Ed any harm with the general public to be heckled at the TUC," a shadow cabinet minister tells me, "but that wasn't the purpose of the speech." The purpose, it seems, was to reach out to a disgruntled union movement, for whom Miliband has genuine affection, while restating his now familiar line: it is wrong to strike in the midst of ongoing talks with the government.

The argument may sound reasonable but it doesn't stand up to close examination. As TUC general secretary Brendan Barber pointed out: "Meaningful negotiations require two willing partners." Yet Treasury ministers switched the indexing of public sector pensions from Retail Price Index to the Consumer Price Index last year, without any consultation, wiping 15% off the value of the pension of every public sector worker. And, as Miliband admitted at the TUC: "Even before John Hutton's report was complete, they announced a 3% surcharge on millions of your members."

Why then has he set himself so resolutely against industrial action? When the unions go on strike on 30 November, does he realise he will find himself on the side not of teachers and nurses but David Cameron, George Osborne and Danny Alexander? And what is his answer to the question posed by Unison leader Dave Prentis: "Are we supposed to sit back, say it's unfair and do nothing?"

British politicians have a curious habit: they pay lip-service to the right to strike but tend never to back actual strikes (unless those strikes are overseas). "Are strikes only good enough for Tunisians and Egyptians?" asks a senior union leader. "Or Poles living under communism?" Union-bashing tends to be a popular pastime among the denizens of Westminster and the members of the commentariat. Meanwhile, "militant" trade union leaders are accused of "holding the country to ransom" – a charge that would be better applied to Barclays' Bob Diamond.

Friends of the Labour leader say he can't afford to be seen "in hock" to the unions or in open support of industrial action. The conventional wisdom says strikes are universally unpopular. As is so often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Despite being fed a near-daily diet of anti-union propaganda by the media, the public isn't as hostile to strikes as some might assume.

Take the findings of two opinion polls conducted ahead of the one-day strike in June. Asked by ComRes if public sector workers pensions had "a legitimate reason to go on strike" over their pensions, 49% of the public agreed and just 35% disagreed. Meanwhile, Ipsos-Mori asked voters if they backed industrial action by public sector workers over jobs, pay and pensions, and found public opinion evenly split: 48% in support, 48% against. Polls also show that union officials are far more trusted than business leaders, journalists and politicians.

But Miliband is urged to keep his distance from the dastardly unions. "What I think is happening at the moment is that the leadership of the Labour party has got itself into a position where in order to pacify the voracious animal that is the rightwing press, or the undead Blairites, it is having this virility contest with the trade unions," Unite boss Len McCluskey told me. "I wish it wouldn't do that; I wish Ed wouldn't do that."

Now is not the time for posturing. The cuts are beginning to bite – and depressing report from the ONS revealed that unemployment grew by 80,000 during the three months to July, taking the total number of jobless to 2.5 million. The number of people employed in the public sector dropped by 111,000 in the three months to June – the biggest fall since records began in 1999. And the private sector created just one job for every 2.7 jobs lost in the public sector.

The unions' dire predictions have come to pass. The spectre of a double-dip recession looms. The chancellor, with his refusal to budge on spending cuts and his blind belief in a fictional "private sector-led recovery", is driving the UK economy off a cliff. So now is not the time for Miliband to be "picking a fight" or even "distancing" himself from the trade unions; now is the moment to be joining with them to create a national movement of opposition to, and resistance against, the coalition's fiscal barbarism.

We urgently need a more radical and stimulative alternative to cuts. That isn't just the opinion of trade union leaders but a view expressed by a growing number of "serious" opinion formers – from Nobel prize-winning economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz to the FT columnist Martin Wolf. Even Bill Gross, manager of the world's largest bond fund, Pimco, and a former Osborne ally, now says the coalition's austerity measures need "fine-tuning and perhaps re-routing".

A Japanese-style lost decade beckons. If Miliband and the Labour party cannot win the argument against austerity in parliament then the seven million-strong union movement – the country's biggest collection of voluntary organisations – will have to act as our last line of defence.

LemonDifficult Wed 14-Sep-11 22:38:19

Strikes don't tend to be economically galvanising...

I'll be interested to see how your call to arms goes. 'Now is not the time for posturing' is not a phrase I'd have put in an OP this long, though.

CogitoErgoSometimes Thu 15-Sep-11 07:32:51

If Ed Milliband joins in, he'll end up in the same position as Callaghan, Foot & Kinnock i.e. completely hamstrung and discredited.

niceguy2 Thu 15-Sep-11 11:06:10

Bring it on! Strikes were always going to be inevitable as soon as cuts were on the cards. It doesn't matter whether Labour or the Tories had won, deep cuts would mean strikes.

So let's just get it over & done with so we can move on.

MrPants Thu 15-Sep-11 12:20:23

I'm sorry but I see this simply as a bunch of people I never chose to employ, blackmailing someone I never voted for into using the force of the state to separate me from even more of my hard-earned banknotes.

I admit that I'm all for a low tax economy with the smallest possible state and public sector but, with most of middle-England being squeezed harder than at any time for several generations; I don't think that deep-seated mass public support exists for industrial action these days.

History is littered with the corpses of once great companies who have been laid low by union activity. IMHO, British industry never recovered from the madness of the mid-70's. It is telling that the only areas of our economy where the unions still hold sway are amongst the state controlled areas where profitability and efficiency don't matter and competition is unheard of.

Show me a genuinely competitive private sector industry with a powerful union and I'll show you my backside on the Town Hall steps!

aerol Thu 15-Sep-11 15:08:45

If he gives in to the unions demands and joins them, then Labour might as well give up as a political party as they would become unelectable just like they were in the 1980s.

aquashiv Thu 15-Sep-11 18:40:09

I think they are pretty unelectable anyway with him 'in charge'.
Personally have absolutley no faith in him whatsover.
He has many an occasion recently to make a stand yet says nothing or if he does its just meaninless sound bites. I get the feeling he is only a caretaker leader and he knows it.

niceguy2 Thu 15-Sep-11 22:10:36

Personally I cant wait for Ed to do more interviews and hear his opinions on why these strikes are wrong

Solopower Sun 18-Sep-11 17:03:25

I'm not sure why they are striking on 30 November - is it because the government is cutting public sector jobs and wants those of us who keep our jobs to work for longer and to pay more for our pensions?

If Ed Miliband doesn't agree with the reason for the strike, he shouldn't back the unions, surely (or am I being naive?).

Maybe he is hoping that the unions will do his dirty work for him and will eventually bring about the downfall of the Coalition. At which point EM will be able to form a government that is free of the taint of union involvement - and the unions will vote Labour anyway. Win-win for him.

CogitoErgoSometimes Mon 19-Sep-11 07:09:59

The public sector unions won't bring about the 'downfall of the government' because, whilst they are supported by their own members, the majority of workers are not part of the trades union movement. This is different to the seventies/eighties. Other workers will be inconvenienced by the strikes, see the demands as unrealistic/selfish and won't support the action. Milliband knows this very well and, like many politicians, would rather be on the side of the majority than throw in his hat with an awkward minority.

niceguy2 Mon 19-Sep-11 09:57:20

Ed can't distance himself too much though because without the union contributions, Labour would have gone bankrupt long ago.

So he has to walk a tightrope on this one and balance public opinion which the majority don't support action and ensuring unions still contribute to Labour funds.

CogitoErgoSometimes Mon 19-Sep-11 10:01:15

Oh yes... there will be oodles of lipservice. Gotta keep Bob Crow and the other champagne trots sweet. smile

bemybebe Mon 19-Sep-11 10:14:48

niceguy2 - an absolutely brilliant link - and 'that is why' I think Ed is the best thing that happened to the conservative party
i think i missed it... again, why did Ed say those strikes are wrong? wink

SalmeMurrikAgain Sat 24-Sep-11 21:56:50

Cogito - Bob Crow has never been a member of the Labour Party. The RMT is not affiliated to and doesn't fund the Labour Party at national level, although local branches may still do so if they wish.

I've always been a believer in independent unions as I'm just not convinced the Labour Party is good value for money for trade unions. It's a difficult relationship and I won't pretend to know what Miliband should do. Still I'm happy to remain a member of both Unison and the Labour Party. After all, everyone has to decide which which side they are on in this life, and there's sure as hell no 'we' that includes 'niceguy2' and me wink

JLK2 Tue 27-Sep-11 11:37:40

When you say "our", who do you mean? Most people are not members of unions nowadays. Most unions represent privileged middle-class people in the public sector, not hard-working people in the private sector.

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