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Miliband will want you to think that he’s broken from the unions – and Ken Livingstone to think that he hasn’t

By Peter Hoskin
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Yes, you did read that right. “Ed Miliband to explore historic break with trade unions.” That’s really what the Guardian headline says.

But, below that headline, the truth of the story is a little murkier. Apparently, “Miliband has made no decisions on whether to break Labour’s links with the trade unions.” And the idea that he should seems to have emerged from the shadows rather than from the Labour leader’s office. One “former Cabinet minister” tells the paper that “we need to have a commission that looks at the union link”.

And it gets murkier still when you consider a tweet that LBC Radio published earlier this morning. Turns out that, with the fires raging around him, Miliband took time to call Ken Livingstone – yes, Ken Livingstone – yesterday:


What these competing stories suggest, to me at least, is that Miliband is going to hurry to the half-way line and stay there. Enough separation from the unions that it can be called “reform”; not so much that it angers the unions themselves, nor, erm, Ken Livingtone. In a useful post over at LabourList, Mark Ferguson explains what these middle-ground solutions might look like:

“...what the mysterious ‘former cabinet minister’ suggests in the Guardian is that there should be one category of union members. That could just as easily mean bringing affiliated, levy paying trade unionists into the party as full members – which although controversial and radical, would not constitute a break with the unions, far from it. Another alternative would be to reintroduce the affiliated membership status for affiliated trade unionists. That appears to be a position that has support amongst the unions...”

Of course, this raises the question of whether either side – the McCluskley-ites or the break-the-link-ites – will be fully satisfied in the end. But there’s a more important question than that: whether any of this will help overcome the current impasse over the funding of political parties. I won’t hold my breath for an “opt-in,” rather than an “opt-out,” union levy, but now’s the time to talk about that sort of thing.