Comment: Miliband’s union battle will be about spending, not funding

It is hard to see who Ed Miliband was hoping to please with his plans to reform Labour's link with the unions.

It can't have been the union leaders, most of whom have come out against them.

It can't have been his critics on the right of his party, many of whom say his reforms don't go far enough.

And it can't have been the public, whose interest in Labour's internal funding arrangements could be measured in fractions of a millisecond.

Perhaps it was simply an attempt to throw off his image as 'Red Ed'. A tabloid-inspired attempt to pose as the iron leader, facing down the unions.

But if he was hoping for a 'clause four' moment at the TUC congress today then he will have been bitterly disappointed.

There were no jeers. There were no protesters rushing the stage.

Instead the delegates simply sat in silence as he pushed ahead with plans to sever the automatic link between the Labour party and union members.

Admittedly Miliband did not mention the most controversial part of his plans, to cut union voting rights at party conference.

But if the trade union movement are genuinely up in arms with the Labour leader then they did an incredibly good job of hiding it.

Part of this could be down to the fact that union delegates are much more persuaded by Miliband's reforms than their leaders.

A YouGov poll this week found a majority of union members believe his plans are sensible, despite the public complaints from their general secretaries.

Perhaps union members also understand that Miliband's reforms will not actually reduce their influence.

As Labour's former treasurer said today the plans may even increase it, forcing Labour to rely much more on individual donations from unions.

But the real reason Miliband was not jeered is that of all the issues union members care about, Labour's funding arrangements come right down at the bottom.

In fact the most telling part of Miliband's appearance today came not during his speech, but in the question and answer session afterwards.

A delegate accused Miliband of "being fundamentally committed to the government's spending plans", and pushed Miliband for "a clear answer. Are you for or against austerity?"

With years of more cuts to come, this question is far more relevant to union members than the technical matter of which particular wording goes on which particular union membership form.

The woman's question received the biggest round of applause of the day. Miliband's carefully-worded answer about "difficult decisions" received nothing.

At some point Miliband will face a battle with the unions.

But it won't be about what the Labour party currently receives. It will be about what a future Labour government would spend.