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By Peter Hoskin
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Yep,
the TUC conference is in full effect. Alongside yesterday’s talk
of a general strike
, we now have the suggestion that pensioners
should occupy council buildings
in protest at cuts; a “manifesto”
for teachers
that instructs them to avoid “non-teaching duties” such as
supervising children at lunchtime; and — unsurprising, but still deeply
unedifying — the sale
of t-shirts
revelling in the prospect of Margaret Thatcher’s death. It
would all make for a grim caricature of the extreme left were it not for one
important fact: it’s real.

You’d
think that Ed Miliband, the unions’ choice for Labour leader, would want to
back away from all this — and that is exactly what he’s doing, albeit quite
gently. At a union dinner last night, he told his table companions that, “The
public doesn’t want to see strikes. Nor do your members. Nor do you.” And Ed
Balls repeated the message this morning, in his speech to the conference. “I am sure that the last thing the vast
majority of trade union members want, at a time of such uncertainty,” quoth the
Shadow Chancellor, “is strikes over the coming months. It is not what we want.
It is not what the public wants either. So let us say loud and clear: we don’t
want to see a return to the 1980s.”


None of this is
surprising, however. After all, Miliband was heckled
at last year’s TUC conference
for criticising the strikes. And, since
before the summer recess, he’s been running what I call a yin-yang
strategy
: consciously trying to broaden his appeal in all directions. This
means showing his face at union get-togethers from time to time, as he did for
the Durham Miners’ Gala. But it also means telling the union bosses where to
get off, as he did today. Their boos and heckles — like those that Mr Balls was
subjected
to earlier
when he mentioned the inevitability of spending cuts — will make
the Labour leader more attractive to floating voters. Or at least that’s the
theory.

But the problem is,
this process is all rather superficial at the moment —confined mostly to
rhetoric, rather than encoded within Labour’s actions. As Steve Richards
suggests in his
latest column
, the truth is that Miliband’s party still has the same formal link
with the unions — and the same funding arrangements —that existed before his
election. Indeed, Labour received some £2 million from the unions in the second
quarter of this year alone, the latest period for which figures are available.

We’d know that Ed
Miliband was serious if, say, he stopped insisting that the political levy
imposed on union members remain “opt-out,” rather than becoming “opt-in”. This
would not only force his party to be less dependent on the brothers’ cash, but
it would also better capture the political
diversity of the union movement
and — who knows? — could even help end the current
impasse
over party funding. So what are the odds of this happening? I’ll
leave ConservativeHome readers to decide.

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