Unions: “Stop David, not Get Ed”

Despite gleeful howls from the right-wing press, it seems that the unions were more interested in st

The debate about the extent to which Ed Miliband owes his election victory to the unions is going to rumble on and on. Already, it's the most prominent detail of his election: for instance, the Telegraph's front-page story today ("New Labour is dead") features the phrase "Mr Miliband insisted he was his 'own man' and not in thrall to the unions, whose support gave him victory."

This morning, Alistair Darling was on the Today programme to talk about Labour's future economic policy, but instead found himself tackled by Sarah Montague on Ed Miliband's likely economic direction, given the manner of his election. Even Patrick Wintour's detailed and excellent analysis of the voting breakdown in today's Guardian concedes in its headline that "the unions had the last word".

The right-wing press is clearly going to enjoy attempting to undermine Ed Miliband as he attempts to take the Labour Party forward with references to his "thrall" to union barons and his lack of a democratic mandate. There can be no doubt that the numbers appear to stack up behind this argument: Ed received first preferences from just 72 of the 635 constituency parties, but dominated union members, with 47,439 first preferences compared to his brother's 21,778. Union turnout overall was low -- just 9 per cent of those eligible voted -- but it seems that those who did turn out did so overwhelmingly for the younger Miliband.

The relationship between Labour and the unions must and should be subject to close scrutiny. But, before anyone writes Ed off as a union stooge, Kevin Maguire, in his Mirror column today, teases out a vital point: the unions didn't so much elect Ed Miliband as not elect David Miliband. Or, as Maguire put it, they "whirred into action to Stop David not Get Ed".

Nigel Morris in today's Independent makes a similar point, even quoting a union official saying: "We stopped David -- that's the main thing." According to another of Morris's union sources, they viewed their tactics as "levelling the playing field" for the other candidates in the face of David's superior resources.

And here we run up against yet another ramification of the Miliband brothers' family relationship -- in another contest, perhaps the way for Ed Miliband to distance himself from his apparent popularity with the unions would have been to emphasise that he had merely benefited from his rival's inability to appear "in touch" with the working class as represented by union members.

But although Ed has shown himself to be ruthless, he has also proved himself the kind of politician who will not kick a fellow candidate when he's down. That the candidate in question happens to be his elder brother would thus seem to rule this course of action out for him.

The problem now facing Ed Miliband is clear: if he takes union funding to replenish his party's empty coffers, making various concessions on his approach to cutting the deficit in return, the party will be financially ready to campaign much sooner. But, as the reactions from the right-wing press have already demonstrated, the taint of union involvement, especially when it comes to economic policy, hands crucial ammunition to the Conservatives at a time when Labour desperately needs to be on the offensive.

As delighted as Ed will be to have woken up leader of the Labour Party this morning, I can't help but think he will already be regretting, in private, how he got there.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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Autumn Statement 2015: a test of competence as well as compassion

George Osborne's chickens may be coming home to roost.

The debate will be political and polarized, as you’d expect, when the Chancellor sets out the results of the Spending Review tomorrow and how his £20bn of savings will be realised. However my suspicion is that while many followers of the Westminster's circus are debating what it all means for compassionate or compassionless conservatism, the public will be more interested in a more straightforward question: one of competence. 

Strip away the hyperbole and the election in May was won on an assessment of which party was the more competent to govern. A huge part of the public’s judgment in this regard was to trust the track record of the Conservatives in balancing the books and that the £20bn in departmental savings earmarked was a reasonable and responsible ambition. 

This is the question in point because what the public did not endorse explicitly was significant change in the size and role of the state. The argument was made and won for a budget surplus, not necessarily for its consequences. As Paul Johnson of the IFS has been at pains to say after every recent budget.

We should acknowledge that one of the reasons the Chancellor does have the public’s confidence is that the cuts to public services so far have not been as damaging as many opponents predicted. The NHS is under-strain, but has not broken. Hard pushed local government leaders have managed to shield social care from the worst of the changes, and the majority of police officers lost were in the back-office not on the beat. So when pollsters ask the public whether they have noticed the effects of austerity, most say they haven't. 

Understanding what the implications are of further large reductions in areas in the firing line such as police forces or local government is hard to do. So the government has told the public "trust us". Now we are going to find out how well that trust was placed. The point is this though - if the public haven't yet felt the full affects of a smaller state they may not be so tolerant it if they do. That brings us to the Chancellor’s real test. The easy cuts have surely been made, after the long years of spending increases prior to 2010 you would expect the system to be able to tighten its belt. But with five years of austerity under that belt there is a risk that the additional cuts could push services too far. 

The public were told that £20bn of saving could be achieved without the kind of pain that will be felt if social care for the elderly really starts to fall over, if police officers become significantly more scarce, or if the NHS does need much more than the promised £8bn (as many believe it will). On this point they have trusted the Chancellor to understand the implications of what he is promising. So if the policy choices in the Spending Review turn out to show that he did not, it will be the Government's competence as much as its compassion that will concern the public.


Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.