Tomorrow, Ed Miliband will be giving a speech on how he plans to “mend not end” Labour’s relationship with the trade unions (and, at the same time, Labour Party selections). The Guardian has carried a number of suggestions for what those changes might look like, backed up by the customary reference to “Miliband’s advisers”. And yet yesterday one of Miliband’s closest advisers confirmed to me not once but twice that no-one in Miliband’s team are briefing out any of Miliband’s proposals in advance of his speech.
Which of course begs the question – who is briefing this stuff to the Guardian and other papers then? Whilst none of the proposals mooted seem particularly unlikely, there’s a fear from some quarters that over-zealous party figures are trying to bounce Ed Miliband into announcing them by pre-briefing them to the Guardian. If that’s true, it’s the latest incredibly unhelpful act in what has been an incredibly unhelpful week.
That said, Michael Dugher (tipped as a possible replacement for Tom Watson as election co-ordinator) didn’t distance himself from any of the suggested proposals when interviewed on 5live last night – so perhaps this is what Ed will be announcing tomorrow after all.
Either way, the proposals deserve serious consideration, so here goes:
A cap on spending by candidates in selections – this one is a no-brainer and should already have happened by now. No-one, either through personal largesse or support of a large external organisation (union or otherwise) should be able to buy an advantage in party selections. Setting a cap is fair, proportionate and in line with General Election rules. The devil, of course, will be in the detail. How high is the cap? Is spending by external groups included? And what comes under the cap? For many candidates, the biggest costs incurred in a selection are either taking time off work or travel. Could/should these be capped? That seems unlikely.
Open primaries – this one is superficially attractive, as it would involve more people in Labour’s selections, meaning an element of choice for the public in “safe” Labour seats and an opportunity to increase support in marginal seats. However, open primaries also mean that Labour members lose control over choosing their candidates, they risk skewing selections towards (rather than away from) those with personal and/or organisational wealth and they are incredibly expensive for a cash strapped party to run. That said, after the past week I am increasingly seeing the temptation of a transparent, open, public contest for Labour selections…
Shortening party selections – the length of Labour Party selections has become a bit of a moveable feast, and thus a farce. In recent years the party has had selections of 12, 8 and 4 weeks, with the timetable for selections feeling like it changes every few months. For the party to revisit – again – the length of selections would border on the farcical. Additionally, depending on who you ask, shorter selections are either better for local, working class candidates (who everyone professes to want more of) or much, much worse. Selections, it turns out, aren’t an exact science.
Allowing the party to contact individual union levy payers – this also seems like a sensible idea. If we want the millions of rank and file trade unionists who help to fund the party to be more actively involved then the party needs to be able to contact them. Many in the trade unions have resisted such changes in the past on the basis that it would allow the party to go around the unions to speak to their members. In cases of disputes between the unions and a future Labour government, that could get messy. But a compromise needs to be found here, because Labour can’t reasonably claim to speak on behalf of millions of working people if the leader can’t contact them directly.
Contracting in, rather than opting-out – this might be the most controversial change being mooted, largely because Labour have spent the past few years opposing the change. In short, it would mean that trade unionists would be asked explicitly if they wanted any of their share of the union’s political fund to be spent on Labour Party campaigning, rather than assuming all political levy payers were happy to contribute to Labour because the union is affiliated. On one hand, “contracting in” rather than “opting out” looks simple, but organisationally it isn’t. For example whilst both GMB and Unite are affiliated directly to the party, Unison use contracting in – meaning they have a seperate “Labour Link” structure for party affiliation. If this proposal was adopted, every union would have to do likewise.
Whether or not these proposals will form the basis of Miliband’s speech tomorrow – and it’s entirely possible that all of this is speculation – the Labour leader certainly has a huge task ahead of him. He needs to draw a clear line under the party’s row with Unite, ensure that it doesn’t spread to other unions and convince the party – and the public – that his solutions are proportionate and justified.
The alternative is that the party continues the death spiral of self-indulgent internal rowing that we’ve become embroiled in over the past few days. If only we were as good at attacking the Tories as we are at attacking each other we’d be twenty points ahead in the polls by now…