Left Watch

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Miliband's defeat in the trade union battle threatens Labour's entire election strategy

By Mark Wallace
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Labour holesEd Miliband's increasingly dysfunctional relationship with the unions has many facets: the potential perverting of democracy, the gloomy prospects for Labour's finances, the insights into Miliband's weak character and weaker authority, the list goes on.

Left wing optimists would argue that in the long run it makes little difference to the electorate. "It's a Westminster bubble story", Owen Jones mutters to himself as he tries to sleep. 

That may be true in part. The story has many twists and turns, claims and counter-claims, and most people have more important things to do than follow it closely. However, Falkirk worried Miliband enough to try to tackle it, so even Labour think the issue has some cut through. By the same token, his failure in attempting to deal with the problem will reach some of the electorate and cause damage.

Whether people follow the detail or not, though, the symptoms of the row will reach everyone.

A clear, direct strategy is absolutely essential in any communications, but particularly in politics. Blair's New Labour strategy was written on one sparse page - from its overriding message to the tactical messages that flowed from it. Election winners tend to be able to sum up what they are about in one sentence - and that clarity means everyone else, friend or foe, can do so, too.

A clear strategy makes a campaign focused, concise and free of stumbling blocks.

The union row, and his failure to emerge from it victorious, means Miliband now cannot create and pursue such a strategy (even if he was capable of doing so in the first place).

He knows that for a strategy to be created in simplicity and to remain so when it is implemented, there must be a clear chain of command with one ultimate authority. His need to keep the union leaders happy, and the ever-present threat of them intervening publicly, makes such organisation impossible.

He knows that the messages used must be in keeping with the strategy and targeted at the right audiences. But his internal political and financial conflictsforce him to adopt messages that the public dislike, such as on welfare reform.

He knows that the troops implementing a strategy on the ground must be loyal to its architects and its aims. But Unite and others now boast of "their" MPs, and have reportedly tried to seize ever more influence within a number of Constituency Labour Parties.

There is an old military maxim: order plus counter-order equals disorder. Thanks to his failure to deal with Labour's trade union problem, Ed Miliband is about to demonstrate how true that saying is.