It was probably the sense of his own isolation that induced Ed Miliband to make his ill-judged and impulsive decision to push for a radical reform of the party-union connection, writes Eric Shaw. Labour continues to be fractured between Blairites and Brownites, and Miliband finds himself under siege; with poor personal ratings, without a power base and undermined from within his own party.
Both emotionally and intellectually Ed Miliband has a much closer affinity to the trade unions than Tony Blair. Yet he was applauded by the former PM for proposing a radical change to party-union relations from which he himself had shied away from. All recent party leaders had approached the issue of reshaping the party-union relationship prudently but Ed Miliband, who owed his election as leader to trade union votes, has thrown caution to the winds and is urging a fundamental change in the relationship, the end to collective affiliation.
All this follows from the controversy over candidate selection In Falkirk in which (unsubstantiated) allegations were made that the Unite union, Labour’s largest affiliate, was seeking to fix the outcome in favour of its favoured nominee. Miliband responded by calling for a major overhaul of the party-union connection. For some (on the Blairite wing of the party) this presented him with the biggest test of his leadership: he had to take on the trade union ‘barons’ such as Len McCluskie of Unite and Paul Kenny of GMB to prove his mettle. And so he has, though at the risk of a the loss of a major revenue stream.
Wild accusations were made about the machinations of trade union machines in Falkirk (and, it was claimed, elsewhere) but a police investigation, requested by Labour, was aborted after the police found no grounds for pursuing the matter. No subsequent enquiry, either by the party or by the press, has uncovered any evidence of serious wrongdoing by Unite. Notwithstanding Miliband has been adamant, in public pronouncements and in private meetings with union leaders, that his reforms will go ahead. The party-union link will be his ‘clause 4’.
All this suggests not a strong leader but one under siege. Under Blair and Brown Labour became increasingly centralised, with an all-powerful central control capability able to drive through most of what it wanted. It was, until 2007, in effect a dual monarchy where two kings, very uneasy bedfellows, divided the dominion between themselves. The dispersed, pluralistic power structure which had traditionally characterised Labour was replaced by a much more elitist one. Institutions like the National Executive Committee, party Conference, and even much weakened constituency parties lost their autonomy and were converted into transmissions belts for the passage of leadership edicts. Pressure groups, such as the Tribune Group of MPs, the Campaign Group and Labour Solidarity either disappeared or faded away into insignificance. There were only two real sources of power, the increasingly fractious and faction-minded Blair and Brown camps; rival bands of courtiers around the king and dauphin rather than ideological groups.
The only exception to this were the unions. As autonomous organisations with their own administrative and research resources retained the means to exert pressure, albeit only with partial success. As long as they affiliated, the leadership was not able to acquire a monopoly over organisational, policy and communication resources.
Notwithstanding, whilst Blairites or Brownites held the reins of government they could not effectively be challenged. The tentacles of the two rival camps spread throughout the party. The expectation was that David Miliband would win the leadership in 2010 and the Blairite ascendancy, in modified form, would be re-established. His younger brother’s election was a serious blow but Blairites remained entrenched at all levels of the party, notably in the shadow cabinet, and had powerful friends in the press. Brown’s crown prince, Ed Balls holds the powerful position of shadow chancellor whilst his wife, Yvette Cooper, is ensconced as shadow Home secretary. Harold Wilson, surrounded by Gaitskellite ministers, had claimed that he was a ‘Bolshevik revolutionary presiding over a Tsarist cabinet’. The quip applies more to Miliband than his pipe-smoking predecessor.
The Blairites, though, had a dual problem: a leader for whom they felt little sympathy and trade unions whose power has been re-asserted after Labour’s loss of office. The unions sought to prod the party to the left, the Blairites resisted and the clash became increasingly acrimonious. Miliband could control or effectively manage neither.
Whatever his personal qualities – greater, as Peter Oborne has recently argued, than is normally acknowledged – Miliband’s position is structurally weak for three interlocking reasons. The first is that his own power base is weak. He has some friends in the shadow cabinet and friends in the Compass pressure group but there is no (Ed) Milibandite faction. Secondly his very poor standing in the polls has eroded his position in the party, encouraged his critics, lowered party morale and perhaps damaged his own. Thirdly (and perhaps contributing to the second point) he has been the butt of relentless negative briefings by (always unnamed) ‘shadow cabinet figures’, ‘former ministers’ and other party influentials. (Someone someday should investigate the nexus between Blairites and their journalist allies).
It was probably the sense of his own isolation that induced Miliband to make his ill-judged and impulsive decision to push for a radical reform of the party-union connection. A fundamental norm governing party-union relations has always been that no initiative that would have a profound impact on the relationship should be made without full prior consultation. This did not take place. Early in his leadership Miliband declared that, unlike his predecessor but one, he would not seek to demonstrate his ‘toughness’ by ‘taking on’ his party or the unions. But this is precisely what he has done.
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Dr Eric Shaw is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Stirling.