By Andrew Gimson
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Screen shot 2013-07-29 at 18.49.10Ed Miliband’s attitude to the trade unions
is hopelessly confused. He has not defined himself, and proved to Middle
England how sound he is, by picking a fight with them in the manner of a
latter-day Tony Blair. The present Labour leader owes too much to the unions
for such a pose to carry conviction.

But Mr Miliband also shrinks from showing
pride in Labour’s links with the unions. He treats them as if they are embarrassing
relations from an earlier generation. He knows he owes them a lot, but takes
care not be seen very often with them in public, and hates it when unkind
people point out that he still relies on them for financial support.

In his recent
speech on union funding
, Mr Miliband attempted to finesse these
difficulties. His plan is to distance himself from the unions, while becoming
closer to union members: “Men and women in trade unions should be able to make
a more active, individual choice on whether they become part of our party.”

According to Mr Miliband, this “could grow
our membership from 200,000 to a far higher number”. It is a pleasant dream, but
unless it actually happens it will remain no more than a dream. As so often, by
trying to find a subtle way through a problem, Mr Miliband has ended up
sounding weak, indecisive and desperate to be all things to all men.

To Tory eyes, this is curious. The country
is no longer wracked by strikes. The unions have lost their legal immunities,
and are no longer strong enough to bring the country to a halt. In 1979 they
had 13 million members and now they have 6.5 million.

Most fair-minded people would say this is overwhelmingly
a change for the better. Mr Blair was right in 1995, in his first speech as
Labour leader to the Trades Union Congress, to tell delegates that there would
be “no repeal of all Tory trade union laws…Ballots before strikes are here to
stay. No mass or flying pickets.”

But most fair-minded people would also concede
that with the collapse of trade union power, something was lost. The working
classes no longer had an assured place in the political system: an avenue of
advancement by which someone like Ernest Bevin or Alan Johnson could rise to
high office.

Our political class has become narrower as
a result. Labour has long had a strong contingent of Oxford-educated
intellectuals, but nowadays it does not seem to offer much else. The triumph of
PPE – Philosophy, Politics and Economics, the Oxford degree taken by both Mr Miliband
and David Cameron – is complete.

But Mr Miliband cannot afford to sound like
a pale echo of Mr Cameron. He and the Labour Party need, as Len McCluskey, the
general secretary of Unite, put it the other day, to be more than “a pinkish
shadow of the present coalition”. Mr McCluskey’s speech can
be heard as a Unite webcast lasting 22 minutes
. Towards the end, he attacks
“the unelected millionaires bankrolling the right wing and using their funds to
stuff the Parliamentary Labour Party with Oxbridge Blairites”.

I am not myself as hostile as Mr McCluskey
is either to Oxbridge, or to Blairites, or to unelected millionaires. But it seems to
me that he is entitled to his point of view, and that when he says Labour under
Mr Blair distributed parliamentary seats “almost as a feudal right” and “became
more and more linked with the financial establishment” he could have a point.

Another trade unionist attempted during the
Blair era to encourage a TUC which upheld a “new unionism”, inspired by Europe
rather than the United States, which would possess “a sense of mutual reliance,
the sense of working together, the sense of seeking to eliminate poverty, to
have civilized cities, to ensure the rich do not get too far out of reach, that
wealth is not too conspicuous and that consumption is not too far over the

Those words were spoken in 1999 by John
Monks, the then TUC general secretary, and one presumes Mr Miliband would agree
with them. Labour people tend to think in that way. They believe in collective
action and European social democracy. Mr Miliband has instead allowed his
attitude to the trade unions to be defined by Mr Cameron, with Mr McCluskey
filling, none too convincingly, the void left by the departure from public life
of Arthur Scargill.

It seems to me extraordinary that Mr
Miliband did not reply to Mr Cameron along the following lines:

as Labour leader of course I believe in collective action. I believe in getting
working-class candidates as well as middle-class candidates to stand for
Labour. I don’t want our society to be more and more dominated by a wealthy
oligarchy as identified by your cousin Ferdinand Mount in his book
The New Few.

Labour stands for
the masses, not the plutocrats. I don’t agree with everything that trade
unionists do, but without the trade unions our party would not exist and I am not going to allow the Prime Minister, with his diversionary attack on Unite, to make us ashamed of our roots in the Labour movement. I absolutely defend the right of people to join unions, and of the unions to continue to modernise themselves so that they offer what their members need.

of the problems we now have, identified
by David Goodhart in a recent article for Prospect
, is that there are
between eight and 11 million low-paid, low-skilled workers in this country, permanently
excluded from the prosperity of skilled workers and not represented by any
union at all.

This disparity between the rich and the poor may be a matter of indifference to the Prime Minister,
but Labour is determined to represent the interests of all workers, both those
who make world-beating motor cars and those who for meagre returns care for our
old people and clean our offices. That is what I mean by One Nation, and it naturally includes a place for trade unions representing workers who are otherwise
powerless to stand up for themselves.”

If Mr Miliband had gone on the attack, and
said something of that kind, he would have gained credit for courage and
honesty, and would have begun to sound like his own man. He has instead allowed
Mr Cameron to get away with the absurdly anachronistic suggestion that the
trade unions are as dangerous now as they were in the 1970s.