Miliband faces continuing battle for heart of Labour
Some of the voters’ disaffection with Labour, but an immeasurable amount, is down to the residue left from its days in office, and in particular over its failure to adequately regulate the City of London as it went on a binge.
If Miliband has issues outside of the party, he also has difficulties internally; particularly with the flexing of muscles by the trade unions which played such a decisive role in his leadership victory over his brother, David, an issue that retains its fascination for many in the party.
The hours leading up to the conference were marked by a series of trade union leaders putting down markers in colourful, often mildly insulting, language, making it clear that Labour had to abandon its support for the effective three-year pay freeze affecting state workers.
This the leadership does not want to do, lest it feed the image conjured up at every opportunity by the Conservatives that Labour post-Tony Blair is once again a creature of the unions, evoking fears that worked so well for Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
In the end, despite the rhetoric, the trade unions did not place their foot on the throat of Miliband, because an amending motion was carefully neutered with the unions’ acceptance in the backroom conversations that have been a feature of Labour conferences in times past.
In his speech on Monday, shadow chancellor Ed Balls, ever regarded as a political bruiser in the tradition of Gordon Brown, went out of his way to avoid a fight with the unions, failing entirely to deal with the pay freeze. Given his own union links, Balls felt he had no choice, because the majority of Labour’s funds come from them.
Miliband was stronger yesterday, saying Labour must put “jobs over pay”. Following the speech, he now enjoys political capital that he did not have 24 hours earlier. However, conference speech triumphs – rare, though they are – are the gloss in politics.
The unions hold to a fundamentally different vision from the “one nation” message offered by Miliband yesterday, believing that Labour must appeal first to its core support.
Reflecting the battle within, union leaders such as Unite’s Len McCluskey want the Blairite “Progress” group ejected.
Learning lessons from the New Labour group, including the way it spawned a generation of Blairite politicians, the unions have set up their own think tank, Class, while they want a greater say over the selection of parliamentary candidates for 2015.
Five thousand of their members have been encouraged to join local Labour constituency organisations.
Thirty years ago, union approval was a prerequisite before any ambitious candidate could hope to win a Labour nomination, but that influence has waned. Now they want it back. Ed Miliband is now an unchallengeable leader of the Labour Party, but battles for Labour’s heart remain.
Mark Hennessy is London Editor