Are these Ed Miliband’s proposals for reforming the union link? And how practical are they?

July 8, 2013 9:59 am

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…

  • http://twitter.com/waterwards dave stone

    Open primaries, though favoured by the Progress Tendency, are not without merit. However, if adopted, all associated processes will need to be stitch-up proof and truly be ‘open’. It shouldn’t just be another option by which even more out-of-touch careerists achieve elevation to the green benches.

    The example of the Sarah Wollaston serves very promisingly. She is a person who has done a real job, is respected in her community and has shown an independent turn of mind. Which, of course, is why the Tories have no plans to extend the ‘open primary’ system any further.

    Similar results will most likely occur if Labour adopts the same system. Does anyone imagine that unthinking, zombie-like spads, straight out of Oxbridge entitlementers and pompous ‘communication consultants’ will win the approval of hard-working, ordinary people in an open primary when an alternative is available?

    No chance.

    Bring it on.

    • DanFilson

      Would be an absolute disaster, leaving the selection of the Labour standard bearer to the influence of the national and local media. In my area, the local editor has lunch weekly with the LibDem MP and follows her party line to the extent of blaming my Labour council even for closing a children’s centre run by the neighbouring borough! And the idea of the Daily Mail telling voters which Labour candidate on the shortlist is the wild-haired loony leftist and which the moderate beggars belief. Bit by bit the shortlisters would keep off the list those they fear might get the public vote by being ‘personable’ and it’s hard to see how a cerebral but not very media savvy candidate would ever get selected. How would Michael Foot or Joel Barnett have fared, I wonder?

      • http://twitter.com/waterwards dave stone

        I understand your misgivings and it is a drastic measure but, at the same time, we should be cognisant of the possibilities presented by localised grass-roots campaigns using social media etc. when set against the usual range of Establishment flunkies (i.e. a significant number of candidates parachuted into winnable seats during the New Labour era – see Gaye Johnston*). It is from working this contrast that even the clownish Farage is able to launch himself to prominence.

        I live in one of the wealthiest Tory safe-seat constituencies in the country yet in the local supermarket, at weekends, collections are being made for the town’s foodbank which can’t keep up with demand. Now that Labour’s Westminster elite have signed up to Tory austerity policies their is no mainstream alternative available.

        Ordinary people have been cut out of the deal and will only get a look-in if the take-over of the Labour Party by Steven Byres-like (taxi-for-hire to corporate lobbysists**) MPs can be stopped.

        But in my view, open primaries will not be adopted unless they can be made ammenable to stitch-ups. The Progress Tendency are influential and have a strong presence in the PLP. They won’t tolerate having their trough taken away. For them, as with the Sainsbury funded SDP in the 80s, it will always be rule or ruin.

        * http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/jul/05/fight-miliband-win-labour-lose

        ** http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/this-attack-on-labours-union-links-must-notsucceed-8693653.html

    • RogerMcC

      No – they didn’t repeat the Totnes open primary because it cost them £38,000 in 2009 money.

      They’ve experimented with what are just selection meetings open to the public but these are not open primaries and raise their own issues.

  • Amber_Star

    Open primaries where everybody on the area’s electoral roll gets a vote & the candidacy is open to anybody? This would give us candidates who have no commitment to the Party being elected by people who aren’t Labour supporters. Is it just me or does that sound stupid to anybody else?

    Unless Labour can afford to contest actual elections by throwing money at them, Labour needs local, campaigning activists to volunteer in droves. How many of us would do that for a candidate who we don’t know & had virtually no say in selecting?

    • http://twitter.com/waterwards dave stone

      “local, campaigning activists”

      Where I live, and in many surrounding constituencies, they’ve all gone. They received the message loud and clear: New Labour didn’t want them.

      Can’t see any way of getting them back or recruiting replacements when other, more open and useful campaigning groups, are available.

  • RogerMcC

    Deleted – duplicate comment

  • RogerMcC

    Some bright spark at Left Foot Forward suggested mandatory open primaries for all CLPs with less than 350 members.

    The last time membership figures for CLPs were published was for the
    Autumn 2010 leadership election when 506 parties out of 636 had under
    350 members.

    Total national membership has increased a few percent since then but
    by my calculation even if all CLPs had uniformly increased by 8% since
    then (which is what the national total would suggest) there would still
    be 472 with under 350 members.

    But if we are embarking on a purge of bogus members as well as doing
    everything we can to alienate real members by embracing austerity we can
    probably expect to lose rather than gain members and push quite a few
    CLPs back down under 350 members again.

    So that’s 500 open primaries you are blithely demanding – and if you
    are going to give 500 CLPs them there is no justification for not going
    the whole hog and doing it for all 636.

    The going rate for running a local by-election seems to be around
    £4,000 so assuming a selection is similar to one that’s £2.5 million
    you’ve just thrown away to give Tories and other enemies of Labour a say
    in electing our candidates.

    But actually that’s probably a significant underestimate of the cost
    as an election where every one of 80,000 or whatever electors is
    eligible across a whole constituency is going to be much more expensive
    than one in which just several thousand are eligible to vote in just one
    ward or division – when the Tories tried actually doing one in Totnes
    they spent £38,000 on it – so multiply that by 600-odd and that’s £25m
    or an impossible sum even for the Plutocrat’s Party which is why they haven’t repeated the experiment.

    And even if its ‘just’ £4,000 who pays? – the CLPs? – we don’t have
    £4,000 to spare in ours and in fact probably don’t even have £4,000 in
    total.

    Or are we going to touch the unions to get them to pay for a process where Tories can select Labour MPs?

    • RogerMcC

      The other model that has been used by the Tories is a non-postal ‘open primary’ which is actually no such thing but just a selection meeting open to every elector who tells them in advance they want to attend and vote in person.

      This of course raises the issue of how 80,000 electors can be informed that there will be a ‘primary’ at all without spending significant money on mailshots and advertising,

      And for every constituency that isn’t a tiny urban one when and where the actual meeting is held becomes far more important than any other factor – and our local Tories are past masters at ensuring that their selections are held on a Sunday just down the road from wherever their favoured candidate lives and is an active local councillor.

  • Alex Otley

    Open primaries are a terrible idea. If only Labour members and supporters bothered to vote it would be an extremely expensive gimmick. If a cross section of the electorate including Tories, Lib Dems etc. voted as well it would skew the results. You’d have other parties voting for people perceived as wrecking candidates. Even if they entered into the spirit of it and voted for people who they genuinely thought would make a good MP it would have the effect of restricting candidates to the ‘centre ground’. Why should Labour voters be asked to vote for a candidate deemed least offensive to the Tories? We have a general election to actually choose our MPs. The field of candidates should be more diverse, not less so. Open primaries would exacerbate the problem of all parties being too similar. Just look at America, where there is more difference within the parties than between them. What a horrible prospect for Britain.

  • Alex Otley

    On another note, Ed Miliband can surely do no more than announce constitutional amendments to be put before Conference? He does not have the power the change selections on his own.

  • PaulHalsall

    One of Milliband’s worst weeks. He has done everything wrong.

    He is coming across as a major spad.

    Jim Murphy is even worse. Ball’s has ballsed up.

    The poor, workers and those on benefits (or both) will stay home and not bother voting.

    Meanwhile, can we have an investigation on how that p*tz, James Purnell got a high paid job at the BBC?

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    Is there not a “possible” legal issue with the allowing of direct Labour Party contact with individual union members, unless they have explicitly given their consent (ie the last two measures would BOTH have to be in place). I know that we have to be extremely careful about giving out individual details such as names and addresses (or in some cases, receiving such personal details), as the Data Protection Act is very harsh. The managers have set up such safeguards, but there are complexities and a need for someone to constantly check adherence to the safeguards, and so there is administrative costs to all of this. I do not think it to be impossible to do, but perhaps significant legal safeguards would be needed.

    I do not believe that either political parties or unions have any special exemptions from the data privacy law, but I could be wrong. And as I understand it, the Party and any union are legally separate entities, so it is not an internal transfer of information, but between different entities.

    • Alex Otley

      You are right. If they did this it would have to be enacted at a later date, after unions had updated T&Cs and members had renewed their membership.

  • ColinAdkins

    Can I call in the police to investigate the selection involving the pollsters daughter?

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