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Taking a broader perspective…

Tainted love – Labour and the unions….

By Darrell Goodliffe.

So, Ed Miliband has finally broken his silence which during the Conservative conference was deafening. However, rather than to attack the opposition it was yet another chastisement of the trade unions, this time over public sector pensions. Ed is playing a very dangerous game in setting himself up as the unofficial head of an ACAS off-shoot; something Labour never has been nor should it ever be. No doubt this is to further distance himself from the ‘Red Ed’ tag. However, there will come a time when the unions will totally ignore what Ed has to say and they would be right too. It is not their place to install Ed in Number 10 as their top priority nor is that the election of a Labour government. It is too their members and the protection of their interests that must be the unions first duty  and while they are no doubt better served by the installation of a Labour government the two things are not one and the same and it would be arrogant of Labour to say they automatically are. Sadly, these two things are driven further apart by an attitude within the Labour Party not just amoungst the leadership but also some members that sees the unions as the bad guys.

Let’s be frank. The unions got things wrong in the 70s and 80s and yes in some ways their actions were damaging to the Labour Party. It is precisely the ‘electoral wilderness’ years that make union bashing as likely amoungst older Party members (those who are not traditionalists and union friendly) as it is amoung the younger who have no real experience of the unions. However, an inability to move on from something that happened 30 years ago and recognise changed realities is a sad thing indeed. Being blunt; now is the time to let go and get a grip of where we are now. The unions are not the ‘reckless’ force of old, not least because the law no longer really permits them to behave that way, they are fighting for their members livelihoods and in turn those members, who pay the fiscal price, do not take strike action lightly.

The notion they do is complete and utter rubbish and Labour leaders have to stop unthinkingly repeating it. They also have to address the question of assessing the unions position in a more balanced way; something that they currently do not do. All Ed Miliband is thinking about currently is his own political positioning and he is not sparing a single thought for the merits or otherwise of the unions case. Unions are now more likely to be middle class than cloth-cap and this is one reason why pensions are a big issue, particularly with this countries aging demographic, and its not surprising the unions should want to protect public sector ones. This is especially true when, as anybody who listened to David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Conference will testify, this government is pursuing an ideologically motivated attack on the public sector.  If we cannot recognise the Cameron agenda for what it is and start to legitimise it with talk about ‘sensible’ reform rather than expose and attack it then Labour is on the wrong road.

In the name of fairness and balance I would say that the unions have some lessons to learn when it comes to changing Labours attitude too. If they are to fight the passive aggressive hostility of sections of the membership they need to engage fully as equal partners within the Party itself and this means things like promoting trade unionists as candidates but above all making sure union members are also Labour members. This will undermine the attitudes of those who see the unions and the link with them as an electoral problem as opposed to an asset and expose younger members to the benefits a union and solidarity can bring. It will move from the mutually antagonistic relationship we have at the moment to a mutually beneficial one and together Labour and unions will be able to ensure the years of opposition are not long and lonely this time around.

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Filed under: Labour, Trade Unions

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