Ed Miliband thought he’d delivered the speech of his life at last year’s Labour conference. But though it knocked the socks off everyone in the conference hall, it wasn’t enough: the Labour leader is having to deliver to one but two speeches to save himself this autumn. Today he will try to sell his union reforms to the Trades Union Congress conference in Bournemouth, and in a fortnight he will give another important party conference speech.
The Labour leader wants to frame his reforms as having a purpose that all parties should want: bringing politicians back into contact with ordinary people. He will try to contrast what he plans to do with the Conservative party:
‘We have a Prime Minister who writes you and your members off. Who doesn’t just write you off, but oozes contempt for you from every pore. What does he say about you? He says your members are a ‘threat to our economy’. Back to the enemy within.’
This is cheeky, because Miliband is suggesting that the Prime Minister is attacking trade union members, rather than trade union bosses, unless he’s talking about the unions that are the TUC’s members. Here’s the full quote he is referring to, from Prime Minister’s Questions in September 2012:
‘My hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak up for her constituents who work hard and do the right thing. Today’s unemployment figures show an extra 1 million net private sector jobs since the election, which is something that shows our economy is rebalancing. However, she is right to say that the trade unions provide a threat to our economy. Since the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) became leader of the Labour party, it has received £12 million from the three unions that are now threatening a general strike. They threatened a strike to stop our fuel supplies; they threatened a strike to disrupt the Olympics; now they threaten a strike to wreck the economy. When the right hon. Gentleman stands up, I think it is time for him to say that he will take no more money from the unions while they make this threat.’
Tory MPs have been very keen for Cameron to make clear that he feels trade union members are ‘lions led by donkeys’, playing the union bosses and Labour, rather than the men and women who join these organisations for legal protection, training and discounts. Indeed, this week one Conservative campaigner who is very keen to see the party renew itself, David Skelton, proposed that the Conservatives should offer trade unionists free membership of the Tory party, to reflect the fact that Labour does not have an exclusive claim to these workers’ loyalty at the ballot box. The Conservatives will need to keep emphasising that ‘lions led by donkeys’ distinction until they are blue in the face to overcome the attack from Labour on this front.
But will Miliband succeed today, or end up red in the face? He was booed at the TUC in 2011. Chances are he won’t enjoy an entirely cheery reception today. But if he does, he can quite easily spin it his way: a bit of heckling will undermine the Tory line that Miliband is in hock to his friends in the trade union movement.