By Andrew Gimson
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Ed Miliband’s attitude to the trade unions is hopelessly confused. He has not defined himself, and proved to Middle England how sound he is, by picking a fight with them in the manner of a latter-day Tony Blair. The present Labour leader owes too much to the unions for such a pose to carry conviction.
But Mr Miliband also shrinks from showing pride in Labour’s links with the unions. He treats them as if they are embarrassing relations from an earlier generation. He knows he owes them a lot, but takes care not be seen very often with them in public, and hates it when unkind people point out that he still relies on them for financial support.
In his recent speech on union funding, Mr Miliband attempted to finesse these difficulties. His plan is to distance himself from the unions, while becoming closer to union members: “Men and women in trade unions should be able to make a more active, individual choice on whether they become part of our party.”According to Mr Miliband, this “could grow our membership from 200,000 to a far higher number”. It is a pleasant dream, but unless it actually happens it will remain no more than a dream. As so often, by trying to find a subtle way through a problem, Mr Miliband has ended up sounding weak, indecisive and desperate to be all things to all men.
To Tory eyes, this is curious. The country is no longer wracked by strikes. The unions have lost their legal immunities, and are no longer strong enough to bring the country to a halt. In 1979 they had 13 million members and now they have 6.5 million.