Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Still embarrassing relatives?

The past few days have seen an onslaught from the Tories and the rightwing press, seeking to portray Labour’s new leader, Ed Miliband as in the pocket of the trade unions, presumably calculating that a close association with the union movement is an electoral liability.

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This should not be of any surprise – it is a charge levied against all Labour leaders at some point. What is more significant is the way in which Ed Miliband responded to these allegations in his conference address on Tuesday.

In reminding the conference that ‘every democratic country recognises it is vital that workers have a voice that speaks for them’, Labour’s new leader reaffirmed the vital role that trade unions and trade unionists play in a civilised society.

The following passage of the speech was designed to provide reassurance and to define his approach to the relationship between the Labour party and the trade unions movement. He, firstly, identified trade unions and Labour as part of the same movement and sharing many of the same views.

Secondly, he repeated the argument made again and again in the same hall, two weeks previously at TUC congress – that effective opposition to the policies and budget deficit reduction of the coalition government must be based on unity between trade unions, service users and community groups. He stressed that to do otherwise would be to risk repeating ‘historic union failures’. Far from being confrontational, the majority of trade unions and the majority of trade unionists would subscribe entirely to this view and did so publicly at congress.

Ed Miliband warned that he wouldn’t support ‘irresponsible’ industrial action by unions. Strike action is a last resort for working people and can only be taken when there is a dispute between workers and their own employer and it must be wholly concerned about employment related matters. Strikes are usually the last resort of workers when their pay and conditions or health and safety are at risk – taken neither lightly or eagerly. 455,000 working days were lost to strike action in 2009 compared to 29.47 million days lost in 1979 during the ‘winter of discontent’. This is the true story of 21st century trade unionism – improved industrial relations and trade unions and employers more resolving disputes earlier.

Trade unions will not want to be treated by Labour’s new generation as embarrassing relatives, but nor do they wish to see Labour‘s elected politicians as ‘creatures of the trades unions’, as the relationship was unhelpfully described by Ken Livingstone. A relationship based on shared values and partnership will be the most constructive and will best serve the country.

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Chris Weavers

is principal official (parliamentary and trade union liaison) at NASUWT

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