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Is Ed Miliband really backing away from the unions?

By Peter Hoskin
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Yep, the TUC conference is in full effect. Alongside yesterday’s talk of a general strike, we now have the suggestion that pensioners should occupy council buildings in protest at cuts; a “manifesto” for teachers that instructs them to avoid “non-teaching duties” such as supervising children at lunchtime; and — unsurprising, but still deeply unedifying — the sale of t-shirts revelling in the prospect of Margaret Thatcher’s death. It would all make for a grim caricature of the extreme left were it not for one important fact: it’s real.

You’d think that Ed Miliband, the unions’ choice for Labour leader, would want to back away from all this — and that is exactly what he’s doing, albeit quite gently. At a union dinner last night, he told his table companions that, “The public doesn’t want to see strikes. Nor do your members. Nor do you.” And Ed Balls repeated the message this morning, in his speech to the conference. “I am sure that the last thing the vast majority of trade union members want, at a time of such uncertainty,” quoth the Shadow Chancellor, “is strikes over the coming months. It is not what we want. It is not what the public wants either. So let us say loud and clear: we don’t want to see a return to the 1980s.”

None of this is surprising, however. After all, Miliband was heckled at last year’s TUC conference for criticising the strikes. And, since before the summer recess, he’s been running what I call a yin-yang strategy: consciously trying to broaden his appeal in all directions. This means showing his face at union get-togethers from time to time, as he did for the Durham Miners’ Gala. But it also means telling the union bosses where to get off, as he did today. Their boos and heckles — like those that Mr Balls was subjected to earlier when he mentioned the inevitability of spending cuts — will make the Labour leader more attractive to floating voters. Or at least that’s the theory.

But the problem is, this process is all rather superficial at the moment —confined mostly to rhetoric, rather than encoded within Labour’s actions. As Steve Richards suggests in his latest column, the truth is that Miliband’s party still has the same formal link with the unions — and the same funding arrangements —that existed before his election. Indeed, Labour received some £2 million from the unions in the second quarter of this year alone, the latest period for which figures are available.

We’d know that Ed Miliband was serious if, say, he stopped insisting that the political levy imposed on union members remain “opt-out,” rather than becoming “opt-in”. This would not only force his party to be less dependent on the brothers’ cash, but it would also better capture the political diversity of the union movement and — who knows? — could even help end the current impasse over party funding. So what are the odds of this happening? I’ll leave ConservativeHome readers to decide.