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Published on November 24th, 2011 | by David Christie
Image © [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="140" caption="Ed Miliband: indecisive over public sector strikes. Image from the CBI's photostream"]Ed Miliband: indecisive over public sector strikes.  Image from the CBI's photostream[/caption] In a recent interview with Channel 4 News, Ed Miliband refused to endorse the public sector strike action which is due to take place on 30 November, but he also refused to condemn it.  The Labour Party still receives much of its funding from the trade union movement, and Miliband was only able to become Labour leader with the help of union support.  Therefore his refusal to condemn the strike is presumably an attempt to avoid causing offence to his union backers.  At the same time, his refusal to endorse the strike is probably an attempt to hold on to middle class voters, and to avoid the ‘Red Ed’ tag that the right-wing tabloid press would attach to him if he expressed support for strike action. But will this strategy of fence-sitting work?  As I argued in my post about Miliband’s conference speech at the end of September, it will probably not work.  Even if his refusal to condemn the strike keeps trade union leaders happy, the fact that he has not given it his full support is likely to anger ordinary trade union members, as well as traditional Labour supporters in general.  Meanwhile, he will look weak in the eyes of many middle class voters, as well as right-wing voters generally, who will believe that his refusal to condemn the strike means that he is under the control of his union paymasters.  Floating voters are unlikely to be impressed either, because his inability to take a clear stand makes him look indecisive.  Therefore by refusing to take up a clear position, Miliband has alienated any potential support that he might have gained over the issue.  In attempting to please everyone, he has ended up pleasing no-one. Miliband seems incapable of taking any decisive action which would free him from this dilemma.  One form of decisive action would be to sever Labour's ties with the unions, which would give him the freedom to move right and condemn strikes.  The recent inquiry into party funding, which suggested that parties should receive money from taxpayers instead of from 'big money' donations, raises this possibility. Alternatively, he could support the strike, and hold on to left-wing voters and union support, while thinking up innovative arguments to back up his position.  One way of doing this would be to tap into popular mistrust of bankers.  As I mentioned in my post about Miliband’s conference speech, public opinion since the financial crisis has shifted left on issues such as the banks and tax avoidance, but has not moved left on the issue of unions and public sector strikes. Therefore the way to get round this problem is to link the two: public sector workers are facing cuts in their pensions, yet the bankers who caused the financial crisis have gotten off scot-free.  So why are ordinary public sector workers, instead of bankers and rich tax avoiders, being made to pay for a crisis which they did not cause?  On this basis, Miliband could argue in favour of the strike. Therefore Miliband faces a choice: move right, drop the unions, and gain right-wing voters; or move left, hold on to the unions and left-wing voters, and try to pull public opinion in a leftward direction.  But he refuses to make this choice, and he seems to lack the audacity or the political imagination to do so.

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Miliband dithers over public sector strikes

Ed Miliband: indecisive over public sector strikes.  Image from the CBI's photostream

Ed Miliband: indecisive over public sector strikes. Image from the CBI's photostream

In a recent interview with Channel 4 News, Ed Miliband refused to endorse the public sector strike action which is due to take place on 30 November, but he also refused to condemn it.  The Labour Party still receives much of its funding from the trade union movement, and Miliband was only able to become Labour leader with the help of union support.  Therefore his refusal to condemn the strike is presumably an attempt to avoid causing offence to his union backers.  At the same time, his refusal to endorse the strike is probably an attempt to hold on to middle class voters, and to avoid the ‘Red Ed’ tag that the right-wing tabloid press would attach to him if he expressed support for strike action.

But will this strategy of fence-sitting work?  As I argued in my post about Miliband’s conference speech at the end of September, it will probably not work.  Even if his refusal to condemn the strike keeps trade union leaders happy, the fact that he has not given it his full support is likely to anger ordinary trade union members, as well as traditional Labour supporters in general.  Meanwhile, he will look weak in the eyes of many middle class voters, as well as right-wing voters generally, who will believe that his refusal to condemn the strike means that he is under the control of his union paymasters.  Floating voters are unlikely to be impressed either, because his inability to take a clear stand makes him look indecisive.  Therefore by refusing to take up a clear position, Miliband has alienated any potential support that he might have gained over the issue.  In attempting to please everyone, he has ended up pleasing no-one.

Miliband seems incapable of taking any decisive action which would free him from this dilemma.  One form of decisive action would be to sever Labour’s ties with the unions, which would give him the freedom to move right and condemn strikes.  The recent inquiry into party funding, which suggested that parties should receive money from taxpayers instead of from ‘big money’ donations, raises this possibility.

Alternatively, he could support the strike, and hold on to left-wing voters and union support, while thinking up innovative arguments to back up his position.  One way of doing this would be to tap into popular mistrust of bankers.  As I mentioned in my post about Miliband’s conference speech, public opinion since the financial crisis has shifted left on issues such as the banks and tax avoidance, but has not moved left on the issue of unions and public sector strikes. Therefore the way to get round this problem is to link the two: public sector workers are facing cuts in their pensions, yet the bankers who caused the financial crisis have gotten off scot-free.  So why are ordinary public sector workers, instead of bankers and rich tax avoiders, being made to pay for a crisis which they did not cause?  On this basis, Miliband could argue in favour of the strike.

Therefore Miliband faces a choice: move right, drop the unions, and gain right-wing voters; or move left, hold on to the unions and left-wing voters, and try to pull public opinion in a leftward direction.  But he refuses to make this choice, and he seems to lack the audacity or the political imagination to do so.

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