Tuesday 13 September 2011

Ed Miliband: cowardly man trapped between two different forms of cowardice

Ed Miliband spoke at TUC Congress today. While much of his speech was crowd-pleasing, Miliband refused to budge on a central point. 'While negotiations were going on, I do believe it was a mistake for strikes to happen [he said in reference to the 30 June walkouts]. I continue to believe that. But what we need now is meaningful negotiation to prevent further confrontation over the autumn.'

Well, that sounds familiar, since it's the only statement available to Miliband in recent months. Apparently he's still not impressed by the argument, eloquently made by Mark Serwotka back in June, that the 'negotiations' are a sham. Mary Bousted reiterated the basic point: 'Just for information, the government are not prepared to negotiate. All they are prepared to do is negotiate how to implement the changes they have decided. There are no real negotiations going on. We can give you chapter and verse about that.' This sort of fake 'consultation' favoured by managerial types is well known to anyone who's ever been involved in conflict with our rulers.

The real kick, however, came during questions, when Miliband outlined his idea of what trade unions should be. Highlighting the need to increase unionisation in the private sector, he said:
Unions can offer businesses the prospect of better management, better relationships, as you did during the recession. Of course the right to industrial action will be necessary, as a last resort. But in truth, strikes are always the consequence of failure. Failure on all sides. Failure we cannot afford as a nation. Instead, your real role is as partners in the new economy.
This phony 'vision' for trade unions is quite familiar to me. I've been involved in negotiations with employers, and that's what they want unions to be: 'partners' helping them realise their aims. Channels of communication. Enablers. Miliband is parroting the rhetoric of Thatcherism, but in nicer-sounding New Labour packaging. Unions aren't useless relics, they can help the capitalists realise their profits! Let's all pull together! Unions should reject Miliband's patronising notion that they can be 'partners in the new economy'. To reiterate a basic point New Labour has always pretended not to grasp, workers and employers are locked in an antagonistic relationship, and a refusal to recognise that means surrender to the business owners.

Miliband topped it off with the beautiful reassurance that trade unions were a 'huge asset' to the Labour movement, adding that '[t]hey should never ever feel like passive or unwanted members of our movement. I want them to feel part of it.' Well, that's nice of you, Ed, if a little patronising. But the Labour party was founded to be the political arm of the working class - nothing more, nothing less. Unions are not an 'asset' to Labour: they are what Labour is about, or else the party is nothing. Despite his assurances to the contrary, it hardly seems that Miliband has any plans to reverse New Labour's efforts to subjugate the unions.

You might say that Miliband is caught between a rock and a hard place. He must at least pay lip service to trade union struggles; at the same time he's afraid of what the gutter press will do to him if he appears to openly challenge the neoliberal settlement. (And maybe there are actual political convictions in there somewhere: he never appears to believe what he says, but who really knows?) But this is not the time to be concerned with popularity. Miliband's fear reveals that he is not interested in the wellbeing of the working class, but in his political fortunes and, more broadly, those of his party: and that points to a politician who has seriously lost his way.

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