Britain's Labour hopefuls woo unions after strike vote

14th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Trade unions may have been central to creating Britain's Labour party 110 years ago but relations have been strained in recent years -- and the prospect of strikes within months poses a fresh challenge.

Labour is nearing the end of a four-month leadership contest and will announce its new chief on September 25, with former foreign secretary David Miliband favourite to win but facing a strong challenge from his brother Ed.

A key early issue facing the new Labour leader will be how to respond if the coordinated strikes against planned public sector cuts which delegates at the annual Trades Union Congress (TUC) backed Monday go ahead.

Trade unionists have a third of the vote for the new leader and many hope he or she will move Labour away from the centrist policies of its recent past, especially under ex premier Tony Blair, who held power for a decade from 1997.

Blair described his relationship with the unions as one of "mutual incomprehension" in his recent memoir, "A Journey".

They did not understand his desire to broaden Labour's appeal by dragging it away from its leftwing heritage, notably by dropping a historic but "hopelessly unreal" pledge to nationalising industry in 1995, Blair wrote.

There were certainly few people harking back to the New Labour years under Blair ahead of the final leadership hustings at the TUC.

"I'm hoping Ed Miliband gets it," said Maureen Madden, in her 50s, who manages a TUC community centre.

"I just think he's not as focused on being a personality as I think David Miliband would be -- with David, it's like watching Tony Blair mark two."

Another, 62-year-old construction worker John Sheridan, said he would not even vote in the leadership contest because he was so disillusioned with Labour's recent attitude to the unions, major donors to the party.

"You couldn't get a cigarette paper between them (the candidates)," he said. "They've lost contact with the roots, we've just put money in and we've been given little in return."

Commentators say the new leader faces a tough choice on tactics over the prospect of coordinated strike action against the cuts early in their tenure.

If they do not support them, they risk annoying some union bosses and activists but if they do, they could alienate members of the public hostile to the action.

All four of the leading candidates -- the Miliband brothers, plus Andy Burnham and Ed Balls -- seemed wary of supporting possible coordinated strike action in their final hustings.

David Miliband even prompted murmurs of disapproval by wavering on whether to attend a high-profile lobby of parliament against the cuts in October.

The only one of the five to give clear support to coordinated strikes was rank outsider Diane Abbott, prompting one of the loudest cheers of the night.

She said in the recent past, Labour had treated trade unions like "embarrassing relatives you kept in the attic -- let them out just before the election to give you some money, trousered the money, then locked them up again."

But despite the warm reception for Abbott, it is Ed Miliband who has captured the most endorsements from union bosses.

He has the backing of six including Britain's biggest, Unite -- three times more than any other candidate.

He insists he is "not the candidate of the New Labour establishment" -- and even highlighted how one of its key figures, Peter Mandelson, had spoken out against him.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Ed Miliband has called for Labour to focus on winning back its disillusioned core vote and highlighted the need to "rebuild that link with the trade union movement."

That call was echoed by Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union which is backing him, who said he hoped Labour and the trade union movement could be "reunited."

One poll this week suggested Ed Miliband could stage a shock upset by snatching the leadership from his brother -- who has stronger support from lawmakers and local Labour parties -- on the basis of second preference votes.

If he does, it will provide another reminder of the enduring power of the trade unions in Labour.

© 2010 AFP

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