Miliband’s moment of truth

by Rob Marchant

The last week or so has undoubtedly set the biggest challenge of Miliband’s leadership, in the aftermath of the Falkirk selection fiasco. It is one to which he has risen.

We can dress it up how we like, but it was difficult to interpret Len McCluskey’s defiant denials – flying in the face of all kinds of inconvenient facts – as anything other an open challenge to his authority as leader.

As ever, it’s not so much what people say, it’s the subtext.

When the leader of Britain’s largest union is moved to tell us that Ed Miliband is leader of the Labour Party, you feel like saying “oh, thanks, Len, just as long as you’re sure. We’ll keep him on, then.” The damaging implication of the statement, of course, is that it might ever have been in question.

Much of the left blogosphere opted to play it down, with the best of intentions; but there is nothing that looks more obvious than a “move along, nothing to see” approach when your house is clearly on fire, and the rest of the world saw it.

Miliband, thankfully, if belatedly, also noticed his house was on fire.

He gave a dreadful, hesitant interview on Friday, where he talked about being “very clear” so often, as John Rentoul observed, that it sounded like what it was, playing for time.

But worse than that were the interventions from Harriet Harman and Owen Smith; which left you shouting “noooooo” at BBC News, because they left such a clear hostage to fortune in implying that “Falkirk was a one-off”.

But despite the poor start, yesterday confounded expectations: it was a political coup de grâce. Tory politicians and commentators were taken by surprise, and overreached in their criticisms, leaving them looking as if they had chewed on the sourest of grapes. And if you can manage to secure broad support from Tony Blair to Len McCluskey on the same day, you’ve clearly done something right.

Symbolism is something gets undervalued in life in general, probably rightly. But in politics, sometimes it’s not only desirable but essential. Clause four was all symbolism, and none the less important for that.

But this was different. The symbolism was not to make a break with the unions, something not even the most rightward-leaning party figures have any real intention of doing.

Indeed, many commentators failed to grasp that this struggle was not about right-left politics at all. The symbolism of yesterday was to make a break with the political equivalent of an abusive relationship, where power and accountability are uneven and twisted. And, as in that case, both partners need to take a step back and put it on a more healthy footing if it is to survive.

But the putting in to practice will, inevitably, be far more difficult than the announcement.

There is one obvious reason for this: this was not a meticulously-planned, strategic announcement but a nifty, turn-on-a-sixpence tactical response to a lethal problem. And that problem was caused by the failure of Refounding Labour to tackle problems with the party’s organisation; problems which both cried out to be fixed and which many happily pretended did not actually need fixing. La, la, I can’t hear you.

Until Falkirk.

In short, through largely self-inflicted wounds we have arrived at a place that we should never have come to. And yet, against all odds, Miliband’s response to that has so far paid off.

There is a but. It is patently obvious that Labour has not thought this through, because it has not had time to. This does not mean it cannot work; but it does mean it now needs double, treble the focus it might otherwise have needed to make it work.

It needs a heavyweight politician, perhaps even Miliband himself, to invest personal capital in it as Labour’s defining political project, over and above the decent and sensible Ray Collins to manage it.

It is also obvious that, with the tortuous slowness with which the party’s constitutional mechanisms work, at least some of it will take an age to implement. And it needs some ruthless political management to bring it about, something which Miliband’s political network so far seems to have lacked.

And then there are the two main proposals, which we should look at in turn.

First, the biggest proposal is that for the opt-in, rather than opt-out, of affiliated membership, together with a donations cap.

On paper, it sounds great. But it is also riven with dangers: an obvious pre-requisite is that the party must not go broke in the process. It must, as Atul Hatwal pointed out yesterday, square away its creditors.

It is also, as Luke Akehurst notes, gambling that individual unions will not only sign up to, but promote the affiliation scheme; if not, finances could again be seriously affected. And it must consider the vital point that it may be that the administrative cost of keeping full members may be more than £3, in which case the current affiliation fees must increase. This could further reduce the take-up.

Most vitally, though, the affiliation money must be paid directly to the party.

It is all very well to follow the Unison model of two separate funds for Labour affiliation and for general political campaigns. But while union leaders hold the purse-strings, power is still effectively concentrated in the hands of three union leaders. It may be possible to ring-fence funds in individual unions through rulebook controls, but this would be on a case-by-case basis and only with their full cooperation. It is a highly complicated piece of management and it only takes one union leader to get stroppy and turn the tap off, and it’d be back to the bad old days. Tricky.

Second, primaries for London. A great idea, in that it solves three problems in one: it sets a pilot for fairer parliamentary selections, which can then follow on from it (it is sadly too late to fix them now before 2015); it is a dangling threat against any union which thinks to attempt a repeat of Falkirk; and it breaks up the cabal of vested interests in London which facilitated the repeated selection of Ken Livingstone.

But primaries are inordinately expensive. We have yet to see the costings for all of this and that is surely because they cannot credibly have been knocked up in a few days.

Finally we should sound a note of caution. It was impressive to unite Blair and McCluskey around the same political platform; but it was also a tad surprising, after McCluskey and Miliband spending months at daggers drawn.

There are three possible reasons for this: one is that McCluskey was genuinely caught off-balance and has wisely reserved judgement to see what happens. Miliband will manage things well and overcome any union opposition. It all sounds a bit too good to be true.

The second is that McCluskey is so confident that the scheme will fail, or sees a way so clearly around it, that he is happy to go along for now and will later do just as he likes.

And the cynics among us might just see a third: a deal has been done. This is pure conjecture, of course, but hardly beyond the realms of possibility. And if McCluskey’s acquiescence has been bought, what has it been bought with?

Only time will tell and there are many obstacles ahead. But for today, at least, victory is Miliband’s.

Now, Ed, you must deliver. It will not be easy, but you must get used to the idea that your habitual fallback, the path of least resistance, will not get you anything worth having. You have made a courageous stand and have nailed your colours to the mast of these proposals. If you win, you could easily be prime minister and you would largely deserve to be.

If you fail, you may have selflessly saved the Labour party from long years in the wilderness, but not your own career.

You have gone into the final hand with a seriously depleted set of chips but a good poker face, and said to the table, “I’ll raise you five”. The table, impressed by your chutzpah, has bought your story and are now waiting to see what happens.

When you show your hand in a little while, please, let it not be a pair of sevens.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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6 Responses to “Miliband’s moment of truth”

  1. Felix says:

    And hopefully open primaries will also break the cabal of Blairite vested interests who have just stitched up the selection in my constituency.

  2. Felix says:

    “Now, Ed, you must deliver. It will not be easy, but you must get used to…”

    What a pile of patronising tosh that paragraph is. Who the hell does Marchant think he is?

  3. swatantra says:

    Ed showing some b*lls for a change.
    Well done, you have to stand up against injustice.

  4. Rob Marchant says:

    @swatantra: that’s the point. This is not, as some or trying to paint it, a left/right issue. It is about doing politics properly and transparently rather than stitching things up. What we miss is that there are a whole load of people out there who could be fantastic candidates but don’t happen to be engaged with the union movement.

    It is up to the union movement to make them a compelling proposition to get involved, not to force their involvement and constrain their views through their hold on the process; a 21st century equivalent of the closed shop.

  5. Patrick McCabe says:

    How will this ensure that the party structures are more democratic? Will this not give the PLP total power, where was the consultation process with the party before undertaking this? How many CLPs have actually endorsed this move by Miliband, does he even know how many?

  6. Rob Marchant says:

    @Patrick: give him a chance, he only announced it on Tuesday! Will not give PLP total power at all, btw. It will give the MEMBERS total power, which is what it’s all about. If the electoral college goes – as it surely must if this comes to fruition – there will be no electoral influence from the PLP e.g. in leadership elections.

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