After being attacked by the Unite union for supporting the government’s public sector pay cap, Ed Miliband tells Channel 4 News his priority is jobs and services.
Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, said the shadow chancellor Ed Balls‘ announcement at the weekend that he backed the government’s cap on public sector pay had enraged millions of poorly paid public sector workers.
In an interview with Channel 4 News, Mr Miliband was challenged about comments he made at a leadership hustings in Leeds in 2010, when he said the government’s pay freeze was “an ideological attack on the public sector by the Conservatives”.
He defended his remarks, saying there was a difference between a freeze for public sector workers and the 1 per cent increase they would be awarded in future. The government’s preferred measure of inflation, the consumer prices index, is currently 4.2 per cent.
Do we say the priority is more than a 1 per cent pay increase … or do we say actually the priority is jobs? Labour leader Ed Miliband
Mr Miliband said: “What the government have done is move to a 1 per cent pay cap, the same thing we did when we were in government. We face a choice in the Labour party. Do we say the priority is more than a 1 per cent pay increase … or do we say actually the priority is jobs and services and employment?
“The government introduced a freeze and a freeze that actually hit the lowest paid workers, despite promising not to. We’re saying … that for years three and four of this parliament, we’d have a 1 per cent pay cap on average, protecting the lowest paid. It’s not a freeze, it’s a 1 per cent increase.”
Earlier, Mr Miliband said Mr McCluskey was “entitled to his views, but he is wrong”. He said he was changing the Labour party so it could “deliver fairness even when there is less money around”, and that requires “tough decisions”.
Officials from unions affiliated with Labour, who helped to secure Mr Miliband’s successful leadership bid, were privately angry following Mr Balls’ speech at a weekend conference.
But in an article in Tuesday’s Guardian newspaper, Mr McCluskey aired his concerns in public.
He said that Ed Balls’ sudden “embrace of austerity” was a victory for “discredited Blairism at the expense of the party’s core supporters”.
“Having won on the [new] measures, new Labour will likely come for the man sooner or later. And that way lies the destruction of the Labour Party as constituted, as well as certain general election defeat in my view,” he said.
“It also challenges the whole course Ed Miliband has set for the party, and perhaps his leadership itself,” he added.
Unions will be fighting pay cuts for public sector workers over the next year, said the Unite leader, adding: “It seems we will now be fighting the Labour front bench as well as the government”.
It leaves the country with something like a ‘national government’ consensus where, as in 1931, the leaders of the three big parties agree on a common agenda of austerity to get capitalism – be it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – back on its feet. Len McCluskey, Unite
“It leaves the country with something like a ‘national government’ consensus where, as in 1931, the leaders of the three big parties agree on a common agenda of austerity to get capitalism – be it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – back on its feet,” he wrote.
The Labour Party was founded by unions, and they supply around 90 per cent of the party’s funding. The Unite union is Labour’s biggest donor.
Mr McCluskey also criticised the Labour Party for failing to consult with trade unions before making what he described as a “shift” in policy – union leaders only found out about his speech after being contacted by media for a reaction.
“Notwithstanding that it impacts on millions of our members, it is hard to imagine the City being treated in such a cavalier way in relation to a change in banking policy,” Mr McCluskey continued.
The Unite leader said that Ed Miliband had been making a “bold attempt” to move on from Blairism, but said: “His leadership has been undermined as he is being dragged back into the swamp of bond market orthodoxy.”
Mr Miliband said that prioritising new jobs, in favour of public sector jobs was a tough decision.
“It also requires us to say we do believe the Government is going too far, too fast with their cuts but we are not going to make specific promises to reverse those cuts unless we are absolutely sure that we know where the money is coming from,” he added.
“That is right, it is responsible and it is the way we are going to proceed.”
Labour has the ‘stomach for the fight’
The opposition leader last night addressed over 150 politicians during the weekly meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party and defended Mr Balls’ announcement.
He said Labour could not make promises to reverse a pay cap, as well as other tax rises and spending cuts.
“It is a difficult decision but it is the right decision,” he said. “We have to show that we have faced up to these difficult decisions. It will require us to take courage, to be bold and radical.
“Oppositions don’t win because they have the right values; they win because they have the stomach for the fight.”
He added: “I know I have stomach for the fight. I know you have the stomach for the fight.”
Read more: Len McCluskey - Unite and fight?