Ed Miliband Owes His Victory to the Unions, and Whatever Pact He Made with Them May Haunt

By Fraser, Nelson | The Spectator, October 2, 2010 | Go to article overview

Ed Miliband Owes His Victory to the Unions, and Whatever Pact He Made with Them May Haunt


Fraser, Nelson, The Spectator


At Labour party conference in Manchester last week, David Miliband's supporters could be spotted at 20 paces. They were the ones walking around in a daze, still not quite able to take in what had happened. They felt that their man had not so much lost as been assassinated, by a trade union hit squad which now seems to hold the balance of power in the Labour party. In the bars, some of Miliband's campaigners were trying to reconcile themselves to the way elections are fought within the party. 'They stole it fair and square, ' one grumbled. There was no talk of fightback. The defeat is final.

The trade union leaders, by contrast, were walking around Manchester with a regal air - congratulating each other on what was, admittedly, an incredible victory. There may be no vast political difference between David and Ed Miliband, but they had been chosen to represent two warring tribes: those who wish to preserve the New Labour project, and those who wish to destroy it. One of Ed Miliband's aides estimates that the unions spent an extraordinary £1.8 million campaigning for him. Under Labour's peculiar system, union members' votes count for a third of the total. So while Labour MPs and members has preferred David, their verdict was overturned.

Just what have the unions purchased for all that money? There was not much indication in Ed Miliband's main speech. Having been so close to the unions, his mission is to create some distance - but vowing opposition to 'unreasonable strikes' tells little about his intent. For the first time in four months of speech making, he revealed he would be prepared to support certain 'painful' cuts.

To hear the applause, one would never have imagined that fewer than a third of Labour members had made him their first choice.

Loyalty in public, moans kept private: this was the order of the week.

What unnerves Labour is the manner of Ed's victory. At the start of the campaign, each major union was backing a different candidate. Andy Burnham had Unison, Ed Miliband had the GMB, and Ed Balls had Unite. 'With the unions split, we had a chance, ' one of Balls's supporters told me.

'But back in July, they met in a smoke-filled room and all decided to pick a "stop David" candidate. That turned out to be Ed.' Their real weapon was this vast voter database - names and numbers of 1.5 million eligible voters. 'They'd call them up saying, "Hello, Janet. Do your duty and vote for Ed." We had nothing to match it.'

Blame Tony Blair. He changed the party and its mindset, but not its structures. The unions even managed to stop John Prescott becoming Labour party treasurer, using their block vote to install their own keeper of the purse strings. When Ed Miliband declared that 'the era of New Labour has passed', it seemed little more than a formality. And this is why a cheer went up in Tory central office when his victory was announced. Not because they feared David Miliband, but because it seemed that Labour is finally discarding that piece of New Labour kryptonite which had rendered so many Tories so powerless for so long.

The wielders of that kryptonite have chosen to flee rather than fight. The likes of John Hutton, Alan Milburn, John Reid and James Purnell have already left parliament. …

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