The Social Democratic Moderniser takes hold of the Political Agenda: Ed Miliband at the TUC by James Gill
Is Ed Miliband in a mess following heckling at the TUC conference? While certainly being served a volatile start, I believe that Ed Miliband has emerged a stronger man after delivering his speech to the TUC. Out of the door went Red Ed, in came the genesis of a social-democratic leader of Great Britain. It was a speech which set the pace for a renovation of the trade union relationship with Labour and how Labour approaches its politics for the future generations and presented the British public the full circle of the cunningness of Ed Miliband, matched with a will to rebuild the Labour Party. A choice between being a one nation social-democratic party or one stuck in the romantic myth of persistent union and ‘working-class’ struggle.
Ironically, the Ed Miliband who won the Labour leadership a year ago was a man who, rhetorically at least, painted himself as a man of resurging ‘true Labour’ values who wanted to save the party from their ‘New Labour’ comfort zone, then personalised by his older brother David. At the TUC 2011 Conference, however, stood a man who praised the impact that academy schools had in his Doncaster constituency amidst boos and yells of “rubbish!!” from the shop steward floor.
Given the successes of New Labour had in terms of reaching new ground for the Labour Party after 18 years of opposition, I was sceptical of Ed Miliband when he claimed a year ago that what was needed was a return to those Labour values that had guided the party through the twentieth century. Instead, what I saw at this year’s TUC Conference was a man with a plan to build upon the successes in the modernising tradition of the Labour Party. Instead of sidestepping the unions, Ed Miliband made the bold decision to invite the unions to join him on this modernising journey.
After the best part of a year of simply reacting to the news happening around him, Ed Miliband made the news this time by boldly reinforcing the uncomfortable truth that the unions have for the best part of 20 years been increasingly seen as an irrelevance in this country, representing only three million workers of the entire thirty million employed workforce within the United Kingdom. At a time when all members of the public are feeling the squeeze on living standards from rising prices to inert living wages to slow, stagnant economic growth, the public, whilst acknowledging and sympathising with public sector squeezes are unlikely to support industrial action which will only harm the fragile conditions in which people are now living.
The unions will most likely strike come November, provoking the largest piece of industrial action since the 1926 General Strike, but I don’t think it will it harm the Labour Party or Ed Miliband. Ed Miliband in his speech reiterated his pride in the union link and the 3 million levy paying members, but acknowledge that there will be times for inevitable disagreement – such as these proposed strikes. As far as influence in political parties is concerned, the unions, who are thoroughly hostile to the Coalition government, have nowhere else to go except Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. Bob Crow’s earlier suggestion for an alternative party of labour if Labour and Ed Miliband did not come down on the side of the unions would receive hardly any support from the wider public, a majority of whom are not union members; and would hardly be sustainable as the tight squeeze on union members living standards would prevent them from sustaining such a project.
The biggest question that Ed will face now is if this will hamper his attempt to eliminate the 50% union vote share over conference votes in favour of a more democratic one member-one vote policy for conference mandates. Judging by the traditional loyalty that is often shown to a Labour leader, such as to Tony Blair over the rewording of Clause 4 in 1995, and the fact that a large portion of the MPs and ordinary party members voted for the more clear cut moderniser, David Miliband last year, alongside the growth of the modernising group Progress and the Movement for Change community organising group (set up by brother David), suggests a party willing to accept the future is appealing to the wider British public than engaging in the insular maintenance of union vested interest in a party adapting to the changing face of the United Kingdom. The modern Labour party seems to be sharing Ed Miliband’s position that he showed at the TUC conference, cherishing union association, but willing to push through hard messages to make sure unions maintain their relevance in the contemporary Labour party and contemporary British society.
Ed Miliband’s body language at the TUC conference indicated that he understands how large a fight this could be. When he praised the Hutton report and encouraged cooperation of free schools and academies with other state schools, it was clear that he anticipated a volatile reaction from his audience, improvising quips such as ‘I knew you wouldn’t like this’ as he sought to open up a healthy debate with unions. In opening up a debate with the true nature of the future of trade unionism and the Labour party, he has avoided leading both organisations down a road to blind opposition to all coalition reforms, which would lead to inevitable disappointment at the behest of the British public.
Far from finding himself in a mess, Ed Miliband has set the foundations for real renewal for the Labour party.