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.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.