Trade union outrage over Ed Miliband’s support for the coalition government’s public sector pay freeze – and even the prospect of wage cuts to protect jobs – has echoes of the confrontation twenty years ago when rank and file labour activists were dragged kicking and screaming into accepting Margaret Thatcher’s employment laws.
However short-lived it might prove to be, an assault on the perceived power union bosses is almost always guaranteed to win support from the Sun and other Conservative-supporting newspapers; the determination of the “Red Eds” to take on the “Reds” seems destined to provide plenty of fodder for the headline writers.
Trevor Kavanagh’s first reaction piece in the Sun to the opening salvo by the shadow chancellor Ed Balls – heralding Labour’s first step towards the endorsement of coalition policy – had a classic headline: “Labour has finally found the Balls to tackle union dinosaurs...now barons must listen”. (Sun 16 January, 2012).
Kavanagh could hardly hide his glee that the “dinosaurs who run Britain’s giant unions” were once again in the firing line. He regarded Balls’ declaration of support for the coalition’s three-year pay freeze as “effectively endorsing its entire economic austerity programme.”
The outrage and dire threats from unions leader such as Len McCluskey (Unite), Paul Kenny (GMB) and Bob Crow (RMT) have at last introduced some clarity to Labour policy. And, as the left of the union movement will have no hesitation in attacking the Labour leadership, Miliband and Balls have taken their seats for a rollercoaster of a ride confronting aggrieved union activists in the public sector.
Judging by the ferocity of the initial skirmishes between the union hierarchy and the party leadership the threats to withhold financial contributions - and even to disaffiliate from the Labour Party - are not to be taken lightly; it was the failure, even after twenty years had elapsed, of the Blair-Brown governments to restore trade union rights removed by the Conservatives which prompted several unions to break their links with Labour.
Nonetheless there are telling similarities between Labour’s acceptance in the early 1990s of ballots before strike action and an end to mass picketing and the way Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are now moving toward endorsing a pay freeze and a recognition that Labour cannot pledge to restore the coalition’s cuts in public spending.
Tony Blair - who had been promoted by the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock – began to make his name on the front bench as shadow employment minister by standing up to the trade unions and by refusing to promise the removal of the Conservatives’ restrictions on union power.
At that time Kinnock, like Miliband today, faced widespread vilification in the press. But his stand against the unions - and also against the Militant tendency – did win him some favourable news coverage.
Back in the early 1990s Peter Mandelson used to complain to the BBC that it was running too many stories about “Kinnock being kicked around by the unions” but once Blair became leader and Alastair Campbell began helping to devise Labour’s media strategies, union bashing became regular fare for the leadership.
Miliband faces a rough year ahead and with some unions making renewed threats of industrial action over changes to public sector pensions, he could end up clashing with union leaders on several fronts. But having made the decision to back the coalition’s pay freeze – and to have mentioned possible pay cuts as well – Miliband has grabbed for a lifeline which has aided other embattled Labour Party leaders in the past.
But the damage inflicted on Kinnock’s standing in those early years did have a lasting impact and was a factor in his failure to pull off a Labour victory in the 1992 general election. Blair, on assuming the leadership, had no hesitation in taking an even stronger stand in refusing to give way to union pleadings about the restrictive nature of Margaret Thatcher’s employment years and union disenchantment made no difference to New Labour’s 1997 landslide.
The reality of today’s harsh economic climate – and the extent of public acknowledgement that public spending has to be restrained – has left Miliband and Balls with little option but to go with the flow of coalition cuts.
By confronting the unions so forcefully by accepting a freeze on public sector pay, Miliband has won immediate praise from the shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg. He told the World At One (18 January 2012) that it took the Conservatives a decade to face up to the way Britain had changed under the Blair government just as it had taken Labour a similar length of time in the 1980s to face up to impact of Thatherism.
Twigg said Miliband deserved praise for “facing up to the issues” which currently faced Labour much earlier in the cycle – a step which will also give Miliband greater clarity in the messages which he wants to get across and might garner some favourable headlines.
Illustrations: Sun, 16 January 2012; Sun, 7 December, 2011