Miliband is fundamentally changing the union link – and taking a leap into the unknown

8th July, 2013 9:59 pm

Today Ed Miliband will make a speech that could define his leadership of the Labour Party, and determine one way or another whether the Labour Party will be organisationally and financially able to fight the next election. Until now I thought the past week would be remembered as an internal row that we might all struggle to remember in the years to come.

That is clearly no longer the case.

Miliband will today announce a seismic shift in Labour’s relationship with the trade unions and their members – shifting from the traditional “opt out” from party affiliation for trade unionists to a clear opt-in. In future he wants all trade unionists to proactively choose to affiliate to the party, become part of the party and help grow the party. He believes that this will genuinely root the party in the lives of ordinary working trade unionists, by interacting directly with them.

It’s not a strategy without risk. Far from it.

It’s unclear whether or not the party – or the unions for that matter – are set up politically, organisationally or culturally to conduct what will effectively be a mass membership drive for the party within the Trade Unions. To succeed , it will also need the tacit support of the trade unions themselves in encouraging their members to affiliate to the party. There is no small amount of pessimism amongst many in the unions that this will work. One trade union official last night told me they feared this would be looked back on as the moment where the party ran out of money…

Worse – if only hundreds of thousands (or tens of thousands) of affiliated trade unionists opt-in to being individual party affiliates, it would not only hit the party coffers (and the party’s already constrained ability to run a general election campaign), but could also risk the ending of the union link by default. It would be very hard for any union to justify continued party affiliation if only a small fraction of their membership choose to affiliate. If the party is no longer affiliated to millions of ordinary working people, it could be the end of the party not just in financial terms but also as a party of Labour too.

Working out the logistics of this will be a Herculean task, and with the best will in the world, these changes can only have been devised over the past ten days at most – the precise contours of how such a revised union link would work cannot yet be clear. Former party General Secretary Larry Whitty is set to be tasked with steering these reforms in a way that works for the unions as well as the party – the watchword will be consensus, not confrontation (although its questionable whether or not that’s how the General Secretaries of the major affiliates might see it).

Currently Unison is the only affiliate to use opt-in – their model will be scrutinised in the days and weeks ahead as a model for the other unions to replicate.

As for how the unions themselves might react – some may respond angrily, whilst others may be more sanguine about the changes. Privately, all will be telling Miliband that he risks cutting off a huge proportion of the party’s funding. Yesterday I described this as perhaps the most controversial proposal that had been mooted – that’s still the case. Finding new ways of squaring the funding circle will be needed to cover the certain shortfall – especially in securing small donations online – but Miliband should also use his speech to throw down the gauntlet to the Tories. Labour’s red line in party funding has always been the opt-out model for union donations. For the Tories, a cap on big donations has been a point of resistance.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Miliband throws down the gauntlet to Cameron and urged a cap on donations (perhaps as low as £5k) – he has pulled rabbits from hats in speeches before.

The other changes are less attention grabbing but no less significant:

A London Primary – Labour’s candidate in 2016 will be selected by a London-wide primary. That means an end to the current system where 50% of votes come from members and the other 50% come from affiliates. It’s unclear how the party plans to fund what would be a hugely expensive primary, and it will certainly alter the tenor of the race for London Mayor, likely skewing the contest more towards bigger names and perhaps even celebrity candidates who can draw on media attention.

A pilot of primaries in Labour-held seats? – The party may also explore a limited number of primaries in seats currently held by the party but where party membership is low. That mitigates against a handful of party members effectively selecting rhe MP for an area, but it does take the decision out of the hands of party members, and as I noted earlier, they could benefit those with personal and/or organisational wealth. Oh – and there’s the small fact that they are incredibly expensive for an increasingly cash strapped party to run.

A new code of conduct for selections – this could lead to disqualification for anyone who beraches the code. As always, the devil is in the detail, but Labour Party selections are often rife with accusations of malpractice – this will at least mean everyone should be clear what is and what is not legitimate campaigning.

Strict spending limits to cover candidates – yesterday I described spending limits as a “no brainer”. I also said:

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.

The spending limit will cover contests for Parliament and interestingly (considering the current selection process is currently underway) the European Parliament. The key detail here is that organisations campaigning for candidates (unions, but also factional groups) will be included within the spending limit. As anyone who has ever completed an agent’s return for an election will attest, that could be a nightmare to get right. In addition there’s also the risk that spending caps can favour established/establishment candidates because expenditure – in materials and assistance – is one of the few ways a challenger can overcome their disadvantage.

Standard constituency agreements with trade unions – Miliband will argues that these are necessary so that “no one can be subjected to undue local pressure”. Whilst the unions might not fight this change from Miliband, it certainly carries with it an implication that such “undue local pressure” is rife, and not limited to one (or a few) selections. The implication won’t be taken well.

Taken together, these proposals are hugely significant for the party and the unions. But they carry with them great risks. Miliband will say that he believes that Falkirk was “the death-throes of the old politics”, but this is clearly about more than just one selection in one constituency. You do not fundamentally change – and potentially risk – the union link over a single selection. Miliband clearly believes that the issues at play in Falkirk run far deeper.

He must do – because otherwise, why else would he be making such a giant leap unto the unknown?

Update: These changes if implemented would require a Labour Party rule change. That takes two conferences, so presumably this can’t happen for at least a couple of conferences – or there would have to be a special conference to pass the changes. Either way, it’s a minefield for Miliband to negotiate.

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