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Andrew Gimson: The fighting speech Miliband should have made when Cameron denounced McCluskey

By Andrew Gimson
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Screen shot 2013-07-29 at 18.49.10Ed 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.

Most fair-minded people would say this is overwhelmingly a change for the better. Mr Blair was right in 1995, in his first speech as Labour leader to the Trades Union Congress, to tell delegates that there would be “no repeal of all Tory trade union laws…Ballots before strikes are here to stay. No mass or flying pickets.”

But most fair-minded people would also concede that with the collapse of trade union power, something was lost. The working classes no longer had an assured place in the political system: an avenue of advancement by which someone like Ernest Bevin or Alan Johnson could rise to high office.

Our political class has become narrower as a result. Labour has long had a strong contingent of Oxford-educated intellectuals, but nowadays it does not seem to offer much else. The triumph of PPE – Philosophy, Politics and Economics, the Oxford degree taken by both Mr Miliband and David Cameron – is complete.

But Mr Miliband cannot afford to sound like a pale echo of Mr Cameron. He and the Labour Party need, as Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, put it the other day, to be more than “a pinkish shadow of the present coalition”. Mr McCluskey’s speech can be heard as a Unite webcast lasting 22 minutes. Towards the end, he attacks “the unelected millionaires bankrolling the right wing and using their funds to stuff the Parliamentary Labour Party with Oxbridge Blairites”.

I am not myself as hostile as Mr McCluskey is either to Oxbridge, or to Blairites, or to unelected millionaires. But it seems to me that he is entitled to his point of view, and that when he says Labour under Mr Blair distributed parliamentary seats “almost as a feudal right” and “became more and more linked with the financial establishment” he could have a point.

Another trade unionist attempted during the Blair era to encourage a TUC which upheld a “new unionism”, inspired by Europe rather than the United States, which would possess “a sense of mutual reliance, the sense of working together, the sense of seeking to eliminate poverty, to have civilized cities, to ensure the rich do not get too far out of reach, that wealth is not too conspicuous and that consumption is not too far over the top”.

Those words were spoken in 1999 by John Monks, the then TUC general secretary, and one presumes Mr Miliband would agree with them. Labour people tend to think in that way. They believe in collective action and European social democracy. Mr Miliband has instead allowed his attitude to the trade unions to be defined by Mr Cameron, with Mr McCluskey filling, none too convincingly, the void left by the departure from public life of Arthur Scargill.

It seems to me extraordinary that Mr Miliband did not reply to Mr Cameron along the following lines:

“Yes, as Labour leader of course I believe in collective action. I believe in getting working-class candidates as well as middle-class candidates to stand for Labour. I don’t want our society to be more and more dominated by a wealthy oligarchy as identified by your cousin Ferdinand Mount in his book The New Few.

Labour stands for the masses, not the plutocrats. I don’t agree with everything that trade unionists do, but without the trade unions our party would not exist and I am not going to allow the Prime Minister, with his diversionary attack on Unite, to make us ashamed of our roots in the Labour movement. I absolutely defend the right of people to join unions, and of the unions to continue to modernise themselves so that they offer what their members need.

One of the problems we now have, identified by David Goodhart in a recent article for Prospect, is that there are between eight and 11 million low-paid, low-skilled workers in this country, permanently excluded from the prosperity of skilled workers and not represented by any union at all.

This disparity between the rich and the poor may be a matter of indifference to the Prime Minister, but Labour is determined to represent the interests of all workers, both those who make world-beating motor cars and those who for meagre returns care for our old people and clean our offices. That is what I mean by One Nation, and it naturally includes a place for trade unions representing workers who are otherwise powerless to stand up for themselves.”

If Mr Miliband had gone on the attack, and said something of that kind, he would have gained credit for courage and honesty, and would have begun to sound like his own man. He has instead allowed Mr Cameron to get away with the absurdly anachronistic suggestion that the trade unions are as dangerous now as they were in the 1970s.