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The Labour leadership contest and the unions

The candidates talk to the NS Trade Union Guide about funding, cuts, and the future of the labour mo

In our Trade Union Guide this week, all five Labour leadership candidates answer questions on the role of the unions in today's political landscape.

Ed Miliband may have acquired the most formal union endorsements, but all five are keen to emphasise the importance of the future relationship between the Labour party and union members, and their own role in it.

The candidates' attitudes to how party and unions should be linked reveal certain key differences between the candidates: predictably, Diane Abbott sees the unions as central to ensuring that "the voice of working people stays at the heart of Labour's vision for the future", while both David and Ed Miliband are more circumspect, Ed even going as far to say that the party and the unions "will not agree on every issue, but the link is essential".

On the financial relationship between the party and the unions, we see the same wariness from David Miliband, who says "the link between Labour and the unions isn't a transaction - it is a living, breathing relationship that rests on a shared vision of a good society." By contrast, both Diane Abbott and Ed Balls tackled this issue head on, expressing their belief that union contributions give the Labour party a transparent funding model, or as Balls put it, freeing the party from dependence on "tax-dodging billionaires like the Tories have done".

All five belong to at least one union, with Diane Abbott keen to point out that she is the only one to have "front-line experience" of actually working for a union -- she served as an equality officer for the film technicians' union ACTT in 1986. But Andy Burnham cited his first-hand experience of the miners' strike of 1984-5 as the event that really "politicised" him as a 14-year-old, inspiring him to pursue a political career.

In a further attempt to distance herself from her opponents (to whom she has previously referred as "geeky young men in suits"), Abbott responded to the question "what have you done for the unions?" by highlighting her support for the Agency Worker Directive and the Trade Union Freedom Bill. Her fellow candidates all chose instead to highlight measures they had implemented while in the cabinet that created jobs or protected pensions.

The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has today approved plans for co-ordinated strike action in protest at spending cuts, but Ed Balls was the only one to even allude to his opinion on this, giving the following advice to the TUC:

"Unions must stick together, carry the public with them and always build for the future."

Addressing the Congress today, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber was strident in his condemnation of the government's cuts:

"When ministers talk about progressive cuts, and tell us 'we're all in it together', let us expose this for the insulting claptrap that it is. Let's be clear about this: cuts always hit the poorest, most vulnerable, most disadvantaged people.

"This year's election did not give anybody a clear mandate to start slashing public spending. But what we've now got is not just a coalition government, but a demolition government."

With such rhetoric flying in the air, the new leader is going to have to work hard and early to forge an amicable partnership with the unions. The chances of a new and "symbiotic relationship" (as Andy Burnham put it) between unions and party will very quickly fade away if the new leader's opposition to the autumn spending review is not to the TUC's liking.

Read the full interviews with the candidates in the Trade Union Guide here.