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:Getty
Show Hide image

Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.