Ed Miliband must be livid. He has a sizeable lead in the polls, has taken ground on the economy and watches the government lurch from one self-authored disaster to the next. And then, and then, the trade unions engineer a very public row with the centrist think-tank Progress (which is funded by former Labour donor Lord Sainsbury) over the ‘soul’ of the Labour Party.
Jackie Ashley observes in today’s Guardian that this silly spat has grown out of all proportion. Lord Mandelson was asked about it on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday, and he reiterated many of the points made by Denis MacShane in this Coffee House post of the previous day. Earlier today, Unison leader Dave Prentiss indicated that his union would support a GMB motion against Progress — this decision appears to have been taken without balloting Unison members. And Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, has characterised Peter Mandelson as a traitor ‘who once trod the trade union path’ en route to becoming Grand Poobah.
There is little doubt that this antediluvian squabble embarrasses Ed Miliband, who has always been conscious of his proximity to the unions, whose votes secured his election and whose subs prop-up his party. Anyone who doubts the unions’ sense of their own importance should witness their attitude at Labour’s annual conference. Last year, I found myself sitting 2 rows from the front for Ed Miliband’s speech, a few seats across from Len McClusky et al. The big-wigs applauded Miliband’s assault on ‘Predator capitalists’, but were less enthused by his sympathy for academies. And their response to his bland appreciation of Tony Blair was proud silence while their members booed. This is their party, after all.
Miliband, conscious of these ancient animosities, is keen to distance himself from the Brothers but without incurring their wrath. His steps are timid in consequence. On Saturday, he told delegates at Labour’s National Policy Forum:
‘I’m in favour of more people in our party not excluding people. Those talking about the opposite are not speaking for me.’
Who, then, is speaking for Miliband in this escalating fight?