TENSIONS over planned reforms of Labour’s historic link with the unions have eased slightly after leader Ed Miliband received a better-than-expected reaction to a major speech to activists.
The Labour leader made a series of pledges over employment, education and transport at the TUC annual conference which pleased union leaders, with one saying Mr Miliband was “beginning to seal the deal” with workers.
But some at the Bournemouth conference criticised him for not going far enough on workers’ rights, while the simmering row over the links remained unresolved.
In what was billed as a make-or-break speech, Mr Miliband told delegates he was “absolutely determined” to bring about changes which will mean three million trade union members will no longer automatically be affiliated to Labour.
He did not apologise for accusations that the Unite union, Labour’s biggest sponsor, had tried to fix the selection of a candidate to replace Eric Joyce in Falkirk. The union was cleared last week in an internal inquiry by the party.
Unison leader Dave Prentis said the Conservatives would be “rubbing their hands with glee” because of the infighting.
The row over the reforms will now switch to Labour’s annual conference in Brighton later this month.
Mr Miliband held talks with union leaders after his speech, with little sign of a consensus on his plans.
He told delegates that sticking with the current system was a “bigger risk” and he urged them to have the courage to change.
Unions have warned that the reforms could cost Labour millions of pounds a year in affiliation fees, and the GMB has already announced it will cut its payments by around £1.1 million from January.
But Mr Miliband said the changes could boost party membership from 200,000 to 500,000 or more, and make Labour a true “one-nation party”.
“Some people ask, ‘What’s wrong with the current system?’,” he said. “Let me tell them, we have three million working men and women affiliated to our party. But the vast majority play no role in our party. They are affiliated in name only.
“That wasn’t the vision of the founders of our party. I don’t think it’s your vision either. And it’s certainly not my vision.
“That’s why I want to make each and every affiliated trade union member a real part of their local party. Making a real choice to be a part of our party. So they can have a real voice in it.
“And why is that such an exciting idea? Because it means we could become a Labour party not of 200,000 people, but 500,000 or many more.”
His appearance at the conference was met with polite applause and he addressed delegates as “friends”, although there was laughter from some when he said a Labour government would have to stick to strict spending limits.
There was support from Unite leader Len McCluskey despite the row over the Falkirk selection.
He said Mr Miliband was “beginning to seal the deal” with workers, adding: “We look forward to getting more meat on the bone in the coming months.”
The Labour leader also drew praise for his promise to abolish zero-hours contracts, which Labour first promised to do in 1995 and then failed to deliver in government.
But a leading critic, Bob Crow, leader of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, said: “This was a wasted opportunity to engage with the trade unions from a Labour leader who looks like a terrified rabbit caught in the glare of the Tory headlights.
“He said nothing about workers’ rights or taking rail and other services back into public ownership.”