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25 September 2010

How Ed can counter the Tories’ attack lines

It wasn’t the “union barons” who elected Ed, it was thousands of ordinary workers.

By George Eaton

Tory HQ hoped and prayed for an opportunity to present “Red Ed” as a union shoo-in and, in the event, they’ve got one. Despite winning fewer votes from MPs/MEPs and party members than David, Ed secured the leadership on the strength of his support among affiliated trade unions and socialist societies.

David won 53 per cent of the MPs’ vote to Ed’s 47 per cent, and 54 per cent of the members’ votes to Ed’s 46 per cent. It was in the affiliated section that Ed won a decisive 60 per cent, allowing him to take the leadership by 28,000 votes.

“Labour’s new leader is in hock to the unions,” was the attack line taken up by the Tories and by Sky News’s Adam Boulton and Kay Burley, who spoke of trade unionists as if they were an alien species, rather than a group that no fewer than six million Britons belong to.

The Conservative Party chairman, Baroness Warsi, declared in a statement:

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Ed Miliband wasn’t the choice of his MPs, wasn’t the choice of Labour Party members, but was put into power by union votes. I’m afraid this looks like a great leap backwards for the Labour Party.

So, how should Ed respond when the issue is raised, as it undoubtedly will be, on The Andrew Marr Show tomorrow morning? He could point that all of the candidates, including David Miliband, received union endorsements during the contest, dispelling the myth that the unions flocked to him en masse.

But, to be more convincing, he must mount a principled defence of trade unionism and argue that the diversity of Labour’s electoral college is a strength, not a weakness. He should remind the public that the union block vote was abolished years ago and that he won the support of thousands of ordinary workers (nurses, teachers, carers), many of whom fit neatly into David Cameron’s “big society”.

The right’s line of attack would be far more dangerous for Ed if he had the sort of agenda that the public associates with militant trade unionism. But, much to the Tories’ dismay, he doesn’t. Policies such as the introduction of a national living wage, the replacement of tuition fees with a graduate tax, the inclusion of Trident in the strategic defence review and a permanent 50p tax rate have broad and popular appeal.

The Tories’ cynical attempt to smear Labour’s new leader as a union sop is likely to backfire when they realise just how many people agree with Ed.