by Kevin Meagher
Today, Ed Miliband will set out a series of bold reforms to Labour’s relationship with its affiliated trade unions, in a bid to draw a line under the disastrous fallout from the botched Falkirk selection process.
He will propose an end to affiliation fees from the unions, switching to a system where individual trade unionists “opt in” to pay towards the party. Miliband will argue that trade unionists need to make “a more active individual choice on whether they affiliate to the Labour party”.
Fee income under the current system is said to be worth around £8 million a year to the party. The risk is that many fewer trade unionists choose to opt-in, with some estimates predicting the change could cost the party as much as £5 million in income
Miliband is also set to announce the greater use of primaries to select parliamentary candidates, especially where a local party’s membership is small. The party will also use a primary selection to choose Labour’s candidate for the London mayoralty in 2016.
There will be a new code of conduct for those seeking selection, with stricter spending limits, both on individual candidates and the trade unions and other affiliates backing them.
Miliband will say that Falkirk represented “the death throes of the old politics” and that he wants to build “a better Labour party – and build a better politics for Britain.”
Party reform is a familiar expedient for Labour leaders in opposition. Neil Kinnock’s is best remembered for driving through vital policy and organisational changes which brought Labour back from the brink. Later, John Smith took the gamble of driving through one member, one vote and curbing the union block vote.
And of course Tony Blair scrapped Clause Four of the party’s constitution back in 1995 – with its ambiguous commitment to public ownership – in a bid to “say what we mean and mean what we say.”
Miliband’s proposals lack the presentational élan and the totemic significance of Clause Four, but the implications of these reforms are far-reaching and he will have blind-sided many of his critics with their boldness.
This is the most important day in his three-year leadership.
But today is equally important for Unite’s general-secretary, Len McLuskey. He is the man who can place a safety net under Miliband’s high-wire act by backing his changes. Although McLuskey writes in this morning’s Guardian that switching to opt-in subscriptions “wouldn’t work”, the language in his piece is considered.
That aside, Miliband still needs a tactical victory today, following the reputational damage to the party in recent weeks and McLuskey is able to give it to him. It boils down to this: if the leader of the Labour party cannot be master of his own house there is little prospect of being given the keys to Number Ten.
The fallout from Falkirk has become a very public crisis and the electorate is watching. The stakes could not be higher. A decisive Miliband, given the chance to implement these reforms, may even emerge stronger from this situation. What is clear is that belligerence from Unite would be strategic lunacy, inflicting a wounding blow on Miliband, who remains the most sympathetic option the unions have.
Indeed it has been interesting to note the near silence from Labour’s other affiliated trade unions throughout the Falkirk case. In particular Unison’s Dave Prentis seems to have had little to say about this whole affair, which now has implications for the party’s relationship with his union and the other affiliates. His reaction to Miliband’s speech will be of critical importance.
Today is the last best chance to fix this situation and salvage something from a disastrous fortnight for the party.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut