ED MILIBAND addressed the annual conference of the TUC this week fresh from what was easily the most bruising summer of his three-year tenure as Labour leader.
And his plans to radically alter Labour’s historic links with the unions in the wake of allegations about vote rigging in the selection of the party’s Falkirk candidate inevitably sparked controversy among sections of the UK’s trade union umbrella body.
However, Mr Miliband was largely well received by TUC delegates in Bournemouth despite his plans to end the practice of members of affiliated trade unions automatically paying a political levy to Labour.
There are good reasons for unions to be anxious about a proposal to break the direct links Labour has with people in the work place through the political levy, which union members have to opt out of to avoid their cash going to the party.
Mr Miliband has yet to spell out exactly what will replace the political levy arrangement and it’s not clear how successful his suggestion that Labour will simply recruit more union members into full party membership will be.
TUC members also have every right to be uneasy about Mr Miliband’s decision to call in the police over the Falkirk selection row, particularly given that the allegations of attempted vote rigging by individuals were thrown out by investigating officers.
But the mood of TUC conference delegates seemed to be that there is still all to play for in the debate launched by Mr Miliband on the Labour-union link. Mr Miliband has yet to set out what specific reforms a specially convened Labour conference next spring will be asked to vote on. The biggest unions such as Unite and Unison will be optimistic about influencing the debate and of trying to amend any proposals from Mr Miliband to dilute their influence.
Affiliated unions still have 50 per cent of the vote at Labour conferences, a fact that means it will not be easy for Mr Miliband to simply get his reforms through on the nod.
The unions will be reluctant to inflict what would be a highly damaging defeat on Mr Miliband just a year before a General Election, but will perhaps at least be able to reach a compromise deal with the Labour leader that preserves the voice of the unions while reforming the relationship at the same time.
Unite leader Len McCluskey has been fairly sympathetic to Mr Miliband’s calls for a reformed relationship between Labour and the unions. All of which suggests that Mr Miliband has no real need to pursue a confrontational New Labour style Clause IV moment, when Tony Blair pushed through the abolition of the party’s commitment to public ownership.
A coming together of Mr Miliband and the unions over reform is quite possible, and the unions could well make progress on this at the Labour conference in Brighton later this month by adopting a similar approach to that taken at this week’s TUC conference.