Isabel Hardman

Ed Miliband avoids a showy showdown with the unions

Ed Miliband avoids a showy showdown with the unions
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When Ed Miliband peaks, he really knows how to do it. His speech at last autumn's Labour conference was magnificent. Given the pressure on him to convince the unions to back his reforms to their links to the Labour party, you'd expect he'd have picked today's address to the Trades Union Congress conference to deliver another blinder. Sadly today was not a peak in the range of Miliband speeches.

Sure, he produced a vaguely funny joke about a chap called 'Red Ed' who was in fact the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Stanley. Miliband told the conference that Stanley was 'the man who first legislated to allow trade unions in this country'. But it felt as though he was scaling a hill as he told this story without ever managing to reach the top. The conference listened, and chuckled and clapped at his joke. But its reception was more like the applause that accompanies a bad father of the bride speech at a wedding.

The clever section of his speech was the way he pitted himself against the Tories to paint himself as the friend of the unions. He contrasted Stanley's reforms with the way David Cameron 'oozes contempt for trade unionists from every pore of his being'. 'How dare he? How dare he insult people - members of trade unions - as he does?' Then he turned back to himself:

'Unlike Mr Cameron, I am a One Nation politician. And One Nation is about governing for the whole country. To do this we are going to have to build a new kind of Labour party.'

The subtext was: I'm your mate, unlike Cameron, so trust me and back my reforms.

But the problem was that the bit designed to tickle the unions' tummies - tougher regulation on zero hours contracts - was a bit flat because it had already been pre-briefed so heavily. And the rest of the speech wasn't meaty enough to make up for that: it was a bit pro-kitten, if you like, in that it just told us that Miliband wants to do Nice Things, like 'a One Nation economy, one that works for all working people, not just a few at the top' and 'investing properly in housing in this country'.

He did attempt a tough passage - in which he reminded the unions that being flexible by 'putting jobs above pay rises' (something Ed Balls was booed for saying last year) was a way of ensuring that people stayed in jobs. And he told the audience that 'we have to have the courage to change, it's the right thing to do. Change can happen, change must happen.'

But that was as tough as it got. The thrust of the reform section of the speech was that the reforms would be good for the trade unions as well as the Labour party, not that there was any toughening up taking place. The Tories are certainly pleased, arguing that he blinked when it came to the confrontation and that this shows you can't take Ed Miliband at his word. Perhaps that is unfair: after all, you can give a good speech and still fail to follow through on reforms. This could simply be a poor dress rehearsal for that special conference in the spring when the party and the unions will hammer out the reforms. But in itself, it wasn't exactly a showy showdown.