When the Crimean War broke out, the Russians assumed they could count on the Austrians to be on their side against the Turks. Understandably so, for the Hapsburg empire had recently been saved thanks to the intervention of Russian troops. But the Austrians instead chose neutrality. Their prime minister explained: "We will astonish them with our ingratitude."
In the Pensions War that has erupted between the government and the trade unions, the unions must surely feel astonished by the ingratitude of Ed Miliband. The unions founded and financed the Labour party. They currently give about £9 of every £10 that the cash-strapped party receives in donations. Moreover, Ed Miliband would not be Labour leader had he not had crucial union support. Yet here we are, at the beginning of the first serious confrontation between unions and the coalition, and Mr Miliband declines to back them and instead attacks strike action as "wrong".
He was grateful once – or at least sounded it. The night last September that he was elected leader of the Labour party, he came up to several of the leaders of the big unions, embraced them and offered his personal thanks. Having been beaten by David among both Labour members and MPs, it was only because of support in the union section of the party’s electoral college that he snatched the crown from his older brother’s head. He knew he could not have done it without the unions. They knew he knew that. Most importantly for the future, everyone else knew it too, including his opponents in the Tory party and the rightwing press who seized on the manner of his victory to try to sink him with the sobriquet "Red Ed".
The unions agreed with the Tories. Having put him on the throne, union leaders appeared to think they would become the power behind it. Some of their number talked about "getting our party back". For a day or so, they walked around the Labour conference looking like cats who had just been given the keys to the creamery. How naive they were. Just 48 hours after his coronation, Mr Miliband gave them an early warning that a man who was ruthless enough to do in his older brother would not have much of an emotional problem with disappointing the unions. In his conference speech, he said: "We need to win the public to our cause and what we must avoid at all costs is alienating them and adding to the book of historic union failures. That is why I have no truck, and you should have no truck, with overblown rhetoric about waves of irresponsible strikes. The public won’t support them. And I won’t support them."
When they heard that, a line of union leaders signalled their disgruntlement by refusing to clap. Len McCluskey, who is now the leader of Unite, Britain’s biggest union, heckled: "Rubbish!" They ought to have realised then that Ed Miliband would bite the hands of those who had elected him.
His name has been booed at rallies and marches because he called last week’s day of action "a mistake". The blogosphere crackles with accusations of betrayal. One union leader denounces his position as "a disgrace". They are bound to feel that he owes them his backing. But this response lacks understanding that for Mr Miliband the calculation is inverted. It is precisely because he owes the job to the unions that he can’t be seen giving them payback. Like several Labour leaders before him, he knows that it will be very bad for his reputation with centrist voters if he sounds like the creature of a sectional interest rather than a putative prime minister who would govern in the national interest. One senior Labour figure says: "It will be a disaster for us if we are seen as the political wing of Unison." Their support for Ed Miliband last year actually makes it harder for him to support them now.
This adds a further intriguing dimension to this already complex struggle. I suggested a couple of weeks ago that neither the more militant trade unionists nor the more trigger-happy members of the government were reading the situation correctly. They were both wrong to lick their lips at the prospect of an escalating confrontation. A protracted slugfest between the public sector unions and the government has the potential to be a battle that both sides lose. Voters can very easily become cross with the unions for disrupting their lives and services and simultaneously angry with the government for allowing things to get out of hand.
The political sweet spot for Labour is to be seen as the voice of moderation which urges negotiation and compromise. This is the ground that Ed Miliband seeks to occupy by disassociating himself from the strikes while at the same time blaming the government for being "reckless and provocative".
This positioning will infuriate many strikers. It will also be called inadequate by the Tories and those in the rightwing press who want to breathe life into the "Red Ed" label by depicting the Labour leader as a friend of militancy. The merit of Mr Miliband’s argument is that it is essentially correct and puts him where most of the public are. Opinion polling currently suggests that there is a voter consensus that the unions have a case, but that they are wrong to strike while negotiations are continuing – precisely the position of the Labour leader.
There was no dissent about this from within the shadow cabinet and very little from among Labour MPs more generally. They too understand that to succeed at the next election they must win over the broad British public, most of whom work in the private sector and most of whom do not belong to trade unions.
Ed Miliband is upright on this tightrope now, but this balancing act will be harder to maintain when the wind gets up. If the negotations collapse and the autumn turns into a fight to the death between the coalition and the unions, then there will be intense pressure on him to take a side.
This is additionally tricky for Mr Miliband because he also wants to recalibrate the relationship between Labour and the unions as a key element of his project to make the party more democratic, vigorous and engaged with the public. His ultimate destination on party reform is not yet entirely clear, but recent speeches have scattered some interesting clues about his intended direction of travel. The unions wield 50% of the vote at the party conference, a proportion that Mr Miliband thinks might be diminished by creating a new voting role at the conference for the elected members of the National Policy Forum. The unions’ role in future leadership elections also needs attention. It was an embarrassment to the unions and Mr Miliband that he won on the back of a dismally low turn-out in the union section of the electoral college. Union leaders are very prickly about any suggestion that their role within the party needs re-examination. They have reacted with hostility to many of the reforms being privately discussed at the top of the party. "They are pushing back aggressively," says a member of the shadow cabinet.
Yet a change in the union-Labour link may be forced upon them anyway. Party funding is a sleeping issue of British politics – and a potentially very deadly one for Labour if the issue wakes up. Previous attempts to secure all-party support for changes to the rules broke down over the proposal to cap any single donation at £50,000. The coalition could well revive that idea and they have the parliamentary votes to make it law. The Lib Dems would be happy to see the end of big, single donations, because they don’t get many. A limit would cut into the Tories’ income, but they could probably live with that because it would cause much more severe problems for Labour. In the words of one Miliband ally: "It would be absolutely fatal for us" if union donations were limited to £50,000 each.
A way of heading off this threat would be to persuade union members who pay the political levy – nearly three million of them – to redefine themselves as Labour members. When this has been floated in the past, union leaders have not been enthusiastic, seeing it as an attack on their influence. One member of the Miliband team asks: "Would they even give us their membership lists?" No, they will not – if they are stupid. But they will be co-operative if they are smart enough to see that it would be better to anticipate and address the funding threat before the coalition makes it real.
The growing bitterness between Labour and the unions over the strikes demonstrates that the relationship, as currently configured, is not really serving the best interests of either of them. Even when Labour leaders have considerable sympathy for a union cause, they cannot ally themselves with it for fear of being portrayed as puppets of union paymasters. Even when the unions have been decisive in electing a Labour leader, they do not get the support they feel they deserve. Until the relationship is reformed, Ed Miliband and future Labour leaders will continue to astonish the unions with their ingratitude.
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