This article is from the March issue of Total Politics
Just how angry are the trade unions? OK, they’re always a little bit agitated. Agitation is their job.
But over the last couple of months they’ve been dropping some serious hints that all is not well. One clue was Len McCluskey’s recent intervention in The Guardian. When the leader of the country’s largest union tells Labour’s leader he’s being dragged into a swamp, heading for certain defeat at the next election and presiding over the destruction of his party, then something’s up. Then there was the GMB’s Paul Kenny warning that his union was reviewing its affiliation, followed by Unison general secretary Dave Prentis’s dark mutterings of “unintended consequences” as retribution for Ed Balls’s support for a public sector pay freeze.
Bellicose statements of this kind are hardly new. I know, because when I worked for the unions I used to write a fair share of them myself. But there’s a difference between positioning (some wrongly call it posturing), and the threat of a serious political fracture. And the latter is now a dangerous possibility for the Labour movement.
Any remaining doubts about this for Ed Miliband were removed at the most recent NEC meeting. “It was brutal,” says one insider. “Ed tried to push a robust line and the unions just went for him. By the end he was looking completely shell-shocked.”
There are a number of reasons for the vehemence, and sincerity, of the unions’ anger. The first is that they are simply responding to the anger of their own members. There are many sound political reasons for Labour’s endorsement of a public sector pay cap and a more pragmatic stance on the cuts. But they’re lost on the average dinner lady and bin man.
The second problem is the legacy of the recent round of industrial action. Again, Ed Miliband showed perfectly reasonable political judgment in refusing to back the strikers. But his equivocation was noted by the grassroots trade union membership, and it wasn’t welcomed.
To outsiders, this is all confusing stuff. Ed Miliband was the unions’ choice; he was ‘their man’. Surely the unions understand the parameters he is working within, and vice versa?
Sadly not. Ed Miliband’s union problems aren’t eased by the endorsements he received during the leadership contest. They are exacerbated by them. The union general secretaries used up a significant amount of internal political and financial capital in bringing their members behind their anointed candidate. And in doing so they bound themselves – much too tightly in many people’s view – to one man. His decisions became a reflection of their decision, with the result that as he’s begun to falter they have needed to do that much more to distance themselves from him.
Another factor is that neither the unions nor Ed Miliband have much of an understanding of one another. When I put it to one trade union official that their complaints were somewhat undermined by the fact Miliband was their choice, his response was: “And what were we supposed to do? David would have been even worse for us”. Before endorsing the younger Miliband the unions didn’t bother with much in the way of due diligence. Scared by the spectre of his brother, and his malign New Labour agenda, they plumped for the alternative without much road testing. It’s a failure that has come back to bite them.
Ed Miliband, similarly, has very little understanding of the way unions work. He had relatively little experience of working alongside the unions at a ministerial level. The political side of the manifesto preparations for 2010 were managed primarily by other elements of the ‘Brownite’ machine. And the historic role of the unions sits uneasily alongside Miliband’s youthful ‘new politics’ narrative.
To understand fully the scale of the problems facing Ed Miliband, it’s also worth considering this. Tony Blair, the supposed bête noir of modern trade unionism, never faced a confrontation of this scale or ferocity. Yes, there were some handbags. But they were relatively tightly choreographed. And everything was done with stunt doubles.
Miliband, by contrast, does not have anyone prepared to take a fall for him. That is a reflection of his wider problems, and his inability to show constant political progress. The unions may have disagreed with Blair, but those disagreements were tempered by the fact they were with someone everyone knew would be the next prime minister. Miliband also has very little political capital to call on. Having seen them deliver a leadership election for him, there are only so many times Ed Miliband can carry his pail to the trade union well. Again, paradoxically, this was an area where Blair’s perceived distance from the unions provided him with an advantage.
The unions have not yet given up on Ed Miliband. And they are still some way from giving up on the Labour Party. But nor are they making idle threats. Ed Miliband was the union’s choice. And what Len McCluskey giveth, Len McCluskey can most certainly take away.
Dan Hodges is a Labour commentator