8 Sep 2013

Miliband squares up to unions

The TUC conference kicks off with Ed Miliband insisting he will not back down on reforming Labour’s relationship with the unions, despite having to retreat in a row over alleged Falkirk vote-rigging.

The row between Labour and the unions was hanging over the start of the TUC conference on Sunday, as trade unionists descended onto Bournemouth.

The Labour leader is due to address the conference on Tuesday, and has said that he is “absolutely determined” to force through changes to the way that members of unions join the Labour party.

Speaking at the TUC conference, the head of the TUC urged Labour and the unions to “shake hands and move on” from their row over affiliation. General secretary Frances O’Grady said both sides should concentrate on issues such as low pay, zero hours contracts and jobs.

But the Labour leader is also resisting calls to apologise to the would-be Falkirk MP Karie Murphy who has been reinstated to the party after an internal investigation cleared both her and the union of wrongdoing.

We need to build a party truly rooted in the lives of all the working people of Britain once more – Ed Miliband

Labour had initially contacted the police over claims that Unite – its biggest donor – had signed people up as party members without their knowledge to get its candidate picked. A disciplinary process found no rules had been breached in the Scottish constituency.

But in the meantime, Labour has proposed changes to the union affiliations, including removing trade unionists’ automatic membership of the Labour party, amid fighting fresh Tory claims that the unions are “pulling the strings” of the party.

One union, the GMB, responded by slashing its affiliation fees by more than £1m and others could follow, leaving the party with a huge black hole in its finances.

Mr Miliband is expected to tell the conference: “We need to build a party truly rooted in the lives of all the working people of Britain once more.

“That is what my reforms are about. We have to change. And I am absolutely determined to make this change happen.”

Labour’s former home secretary David Blunkett warned Ed Miliband that the TUC speech marked “a critical juncture in his leadership”, amid concerns that the party’s historic relationship with the unions could be jeopardised.

“This is Ed’s chance to present himself as a relevant moderniser – and as a statesman willing to confront even the most difficult issues,” he said.

Read more from Michael Crick: Labour set to pay political price for union funding row

Unite ‘vindicated’

And Unite Leader Len McCluskey warned that Mr Miliband needed to demonstrate to both the unions and the working population that Labour was “on their side”.

He said that Unite had been “vindicated” over Falkirk and that he was happy to have a “proper debate and discussion” about the unions’ relationship with Labour.

“Obviously we are delighted that we have been vindicated,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. “Right along we said that Unite had done nothing wrong and I’m pleased now that the Labour Party have actually indicated that no wrongdoing took place.

“So, it is time for us to move on from Falkirk and make sure that we are involved in uniting the party so that we can move forward.”

For its part, Labour has stressed that its Falkirk findings came after “key evidence” was withdrawn – with Falkirk MP Eric Joyce saying that people were “prevailed upon” to do so.

Although Ms Murphy and local party chairman Stevie Deans have had their suspensions lifted, the central party has kept in place restrictions on the constituency and will impose a shortlist of candidates for the 2015 general election.