I’ve written about New Labour over the years, teach Nottingham students about its rise and (maybe?) fall and will be producing a second edition of this book in the fullness of time. So, let me try and put Ed Miliband’s 2011 speech to the TUC in some kind of context.
No political speech from a Leader of the Opposition is going to tell us very much – they are usually about electoral positioning. So, while Miliband was talking to union delegates he was really addressing the wider public, hoping they might be allowed to hear a sound bite or two on the television news. The speech was, as a consequence, largely composed of Miliband’s back catalogue: he even slipped in a reference to the clunky British Promise. There was, in truth, little new here and nothing that would have been novel to those present in the room: politicians must bore themselves silly having to repeat the same words over and over again.
1. There has rarely been a good time for a Labour leader to address the TUC. Yet, while the union-party relationship has always been fraught, Tony Blair seemed to exult in bringing the brothers and sisters bad news. Miliband referred to the speech Blair did not give in 2001, due to it coinciding with the attack on the Twin Towers. He did not mention that Blair had anticipated a hostile reception because of his desire to speed up public sector reforms.
2. Red Ed, he aint. Miliband made a disparaging reference to Blair’s habit of telling the TUC that the unions had to ‘modernise or die’. But he didn’t say anything substantially different. Miliband claimed he believed Blair’s approach was too fatalistic, that it was possible to ‘shape’ change and that the established economic rules could be ‘rewritten’ – but the kind of changes he mentioned might best be characterised as tinkering on the edges of neo-liberalism.
3. Miliband will not support strikes over public sector pension reform. This was the bit he wants to go out on the television news and Miliband’s people had already trailed his refusal to back the unions over this issue. The Labour leader expressed his sympathy and blamed the government for looking for a fight but reiterated his disapproval of strike action during negotiations. Strikes, he said were ‘a consequence of failure’ and demanded that the government ‘negotiate properly’. But even if ministers don’t – and there were some in the room who said they weren’t – it seems unlikely Ed will ever be persuaded to endorse a strike.
4. Those listening to Miliband’s speech did not like it. Their applause was tepid at best and the delegates in the room frequently expressed annoyance at his failure to answer questions in the way they wanted. Miliband even referred to them not liking some of his answers. If more polite than Blair ever was, Miliband is not looking for applause from this kind of audience. Like Blair he is looking elsewhere – and for good electoral reasons.
5. Miliband will keep on making speeches like this until there are more trade unionists. The Labour leader said that the unions represent ‘the hard working men and women of Britain’ and gave examples of how they have helped improve workers’ pay and conditions. However, he also pointed out that they only represented 15% of those employed in the private sector, claiming that this was because they were not ‘relevant’. If the unions want to be taken more seriously by the Labour leader, the answer is in their own hands: they have to recruit more ‘hard working men and women of Britain’.