How Miliband's TUC conference speech could work to his advantage

Should the Labour leader be booed and heckled, as on previous occasions, it will undermine the Tories' claim that he is the plaything of the union leaders.

After a summer for Labour to forget, Ed Miliband's fightback will begin at next month's TUC conference. Today's Times reports that the Miliband will address the annual union gathering for the second time (having first done so in 2011) on 10 September. 

At first there might some be glee among the Tories that the Labour leader has, as the paper puts it, "chosen an audience of union bosses" to hear his first speech since the party's recent woes began. But it's worth pointing out how the occasion could work to his advantage. 

Every time Miliband has addressed a large gathering of trade unionists since becoming Labour leader he has been booed and heckled (at the 2011 anti-cuts march, at the 2011 TUC conference and at the 2012 anti-cuts march), usually after warning that the party will have to keep most of the coalition's spending cuts and make some of its own. After the Labour leader's recent clashes with Unite over Falkirk and his pledge to match the coalition's current spending plans for 2015-16, it would be surprising if history did not repeat itself. 

While the Tories might try to present this as evidence that Miliband is a "weak" leader who presides over a divided party it would sit uneasily with their recent narrative that it's Len McCluskey and co. who call the shots in Labour. Far from writing the party's policies (as the Tories would have it), McCluskey has entirely failed to persuade Miliband to embrace his "no cuts" stance. A common joke among Unite activists is that they wish they were as influential as the Tories claim.

After months in which he has been framed as a leader in hock to the unions, footage of Miliband being booed could be just what he needs to expose the Tories' fantasies. 

Ed Miliband addresses trade unionists in Hyde Park after a march against the coalition's spending cuts on 20 October 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: National Theatre
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I hate musicals. Apart from Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, Follies – oh, wait

Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling.

I always thought I hated musicals. Showy, flamboyant, and minutely choreographed, they seemed to be the antithesis of the minimalist indie scene I grew up in, where a ramshackle DIY ethos prevailed, where it wasn’t cool to be too professional, too slick, too stagey. My immersion in that world coincided with the heady days of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s triumphs in the West End – Evita in 1978, Cats in 1981 – neither of which I saw, being full of scorn for such shows.

From then on I convinced myself that musicals were not for me, conveniently forgetting my childhood love of West Side Story (for which I’d bought the piano music, bashing out “I Feel Pretty” over and over again in the privacy of the dining room, on the small upright that was wedged in behind the door).

I was also conveniently forgetting Meet Me In St Louis and A Star is Born, as well as An American in Paris, which I’d been to see with a boy I was actually in a band with – he somehow finding it possible to combine a love of The Clash with a love of Gene Kelly. And I was pretending that Saturday Night Fever wasn’t really a musical, and neither was Cabaret – because that would mean my two favourite films of all time were musicals, and I didn’t like musicals.

Maybe what I meant was stage musicals? Yes, that was probably it. They were awful. I mean, not Funny Girl obviously. When people ask “If you could go back in time, what gig would you most like to have attended?” two of my answers are: “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, and Barbra Streisand in the original 1964 Broadway production of Funny Girl.” I would, of course, also make an exception for Guys and Dolls, and South Pacific, and My Fair Lady, and… oh God, what was I talking about? I’d always loved musicals, I just stopped remembering.

Then one of our teens took me to see Les Misérables. She’d become obsessed with it, loving the show so much she then went and read the Victor Hugo book – and loving that so much, she then re-read it in the original French. I know! Never tell me today’s young people are lazy and lacking in commitment. So I went with her to see the long-running stage version with my sceptical face on, one eyebrow fully arched, and by the time of Éponine’s death and “A Little Fall of Rain” I had practically wept both raised eyebrows off my face. Call me converted. Call me reminded.

I was late to Sondheim because of those years of prejudice, and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since, keeping my eyes open for London productions. Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory was stunning, and Imelda Staunton in Gypsy (yes, I know he only wrote the lyrics) was a revelation. Here she is again tonight in Follies at the National Theatre, the show that is in part a homage to the era of the Ziegfeld Follies, that period between the wars that some think of as the Golden Age of Musicals.

Although, as Sondheim writes in his extraordinary book, Finishing The Hat, (which contains his lyrics plus his comments on them and on everything else): “There are others who think of the Golden Age of Musicals as the 1950s, but then every generation thinks the Golden Age was the previous one.” How I would have loved to have seen those shows in the 1970s, when they were new and startling.

They still are, of course, and this production of Follies is a delight from start to finish. A masterclass in lyrics – Sondheim’s skill in writing for older women is unmatched – it is also sumptuously beautiful, full of emotion and sardonic wit, switching between the two in the blink of an eye, in a way that appears effortless.

And I realise that what I love about musicals is their utter commitment to the audience’s pleasure. Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling, and my mascara has somehow become smudged from having something in my eye, and I have already booked tickets to go again. So sue me.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left