New Labour leader promises to recast image of the party

Unions pin hopes on Ed Miliband in effort to regain lost clout as battle over public-sector cuts looms.

LONDON // Ed Miliband vowed "to once again make Labour a force that takes on established thinking, speaks for the majority and shapes the centre ground of politics", as he made his first speech as the leader of Britain's Labour Party yesterday.

Predictably, he got a standing ovation at the party's annual conference in Manchester from Labour MPs - the majority of whom did not vote for him - and from party activists, most of whom, likewise, supported his brother David in the leadership contest.

But among the bosses of the UK's trade unions - whose members comprise the party's other bloc of votes, accounting for one-third of the votes in the leadership election - there were quiet smiles of satisfaction. They had advised their members to vote for the man nicknamed "Red Ed". The younger of the two Miliband brothers seeking the top job was seen as the only left-of-centre, union-friendly candidate capable of stopping his more centrist, Blairite big brother.

Now, with the unions gearing up for a battle over possible public-sector cuts from the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, the union bosses feel they have a Labour leader beholden to them for the first time in a generation. After seeing the union power structure dismantled by Margaret Thatcher and after being largely ignored by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown while they were at 10 Downing St, some union leaders see Mr Miliband as heralding a return to the days when their voices in British government and society were all powerful.

Naturally, the warnings were raised. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative Party chairwoman, seized on Mr Miliband's success to deliver a message that the prime minister, David Cameron, will undoubtedly repeat ad infinitum in the coming weeks and months. "Ed Miliband wasn't the choice of his MPs, wasn't the choice of Labour Party members but was put in to power by union votes. I'm afraid this looks like a great leap backwards for the Labour Party," she said.

The unions have already made it clear that they expect Mr Miliband to oppose the deep cuts in public spending that the coalition is going to announce next month. Tony Woodley, the joint general secretary of Unison, one of the UK's largest unions, described the government's plans as "complete madness" and even called on Mr Miliband to reassess Labour's policy of much more modest cuts over the next four years.

"I think we have to take a step back [and] look at the taxation side of things. But more importantly I don't think we can just slash and burn and assassinate our public services," Mr Woodley told the Financial Times. Mr Miliband has already described the cuts proposed by George Osborne, the Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, as "reckless". Although his timing was unfortunate as the IMF came out with a report on Monday endorsing the government's plans to cut the record deficit as "strong, credible and essential".

The accusation that Mr Miliband will be in the thrall of the unions is something that Labour's new leader is doing his best to shrug off. Mr Miliband, 40, denies Labour is about to "lurch to the Left". In an interview with the BBC, he attempted to quash claims that he would be a creature of the unions because it was their votes who had given him his victory. "I am my own man," he insisted. "I am for the centre-ground of politics, but it is about defining where the centre ground is."

A first real test of union's influence on Mr Miliband could come on October 19, when the Trades Union Congress, the umbrella organisation of the country's union movement, holds a protest rally and lobby of parliament on the eve of the government's announcement of details of the spending cuts announcement. During his campaign for the Labour leadership, Mr Miliband pledged to attend the rally, but there have been suggestions this week that he might now pull out in a bid to distance himself from any ensuing strike action.

If he does not attend, warned Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT transport union, "it will be a clear signal he's already abandoning working people". "If the trade unions, at the end of the day, fund the political party, you fund on the basis that you want to put your political views up," he said in a BBC interview yesterday.