Ed Miliband gains backing from Lord Owen as Labour approves reforms

Once a fierce critic of the party he walked out on in 1981, David Owen senses that changes in Labour’s relationship with the unions may now suit his political direction

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Ed Miliband secured the significant backing – and a cash donation – from former SDP leader David Owen as the Labour leader won his party’s support for reforming its links with the trade unions.

More than 30 years after walking out of the Labour party over its then failure to reform, Lord Owen praised Mr Miliband for his “brave and bold” decision to change union influence in leadership elections. The former Foreign Secretary announced he was donating £7,500 to Labour and gave his backing to Mr Miliband’s bid to become Prime Minister, warning that the NHS would be “completely destroyed” by 2020 unless there was a change of Government.

At a special conference in east London to approve Labour’s sweeping changes, which saw the abolition of the electoral college and the introduction a true one member one vote system, Mr Miliband won a strong mandate for reform, with 86 per cent of delegates in support.

In a sign of how the reforms are being seen as genuinely progressive, Lord Owen, who along with his fellow “Gang of Four” SDP founders in 1981 led to a hastening of the modernisation of the Labour Party, revealed his backing 24 hours after Tony Blair said Mr Miliband had shown “real courage and leadership”.

In a statement, Lord Owen said: “This is a brave and bold reform by Ed Miliband and one I strenuously argued for as a Labour MP at the special conference on Saturday, 25 January 1981.

“This very desirable change, nevertheless, threatens to weaken Labour’s financial support at a critical time when I and many others are hoping to see the Party produce a plan for Government from May of next year to rescue our NHS. Saving the NHS is my main political priority and I suspect that of many others.

“To help Labour reverse the 2012 NHS legislation without yet another major reorganization, I have made a declarable contribution of over £7,500 to Labour funds. Unless there is a change of Government the NHS in England will be completely destroyed by 2020.”

Lord Owen, who has sat in the Upper House as a crossbench peer for the last 22 years, said he wanted to support Labour but that he valued his independence. Because his donation to Labour bans him from sitting on the crossbenches, the peer will now be an “independent Social Democrat”.

Sources said Lord Owen, who in 2011 said he looked forward to the day when he could vote Labour again, had been in discussions with Mr Miliband for the last three years.

Mr Miliband said: “In the 80s and 90s these reforms were seen as impossible but there is broad consensus within the Labour Party that change must happen. That is testament to how far we have come as a movement. Lord Owen’s support today is welcome. It is 33 years since he left our party and much has happened since. In our many conversations over the past few years, I have come to value his friendship and insight into politics. I value his support and respect his decision to remain an independent member of the House of Lords.”

After the vote, Mr Miliband told delegates he had taken a “big risk” last July when he proposed the reforms, in the wake of the row over the role of Unite, the union that has donated £11m to Labour, in the selection of a candidate for the Falkirk by-election.

The Labour leader added: “I did not believe we could face up to the challenges the country faced if we didn’t face up to the challenges faced by our party.”

He told delegates that some people in Britain had felt that Labour had lost touch with them, adding: “These changes are designed to ensure that this party never loses touch again.”

Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps said: “These reforms are a big victory for the unions, increasing their powerbase and ensuring they remain the dominant players in labour politics for years to come.”

Waitrose off-limits

One of Ed Miliband’s shadow ministers was slapped down by the Labour leadership yesterday for attacking one of the symbols of middle England – Waitrose.

Andy Sawford, the MP for Corby and communities spokesman, risked overshadowing Mr Miliband’s  reforms, designed to reach out to the middle classes, by criticising the supermarket’s free coffee offer.

The Conservatives called the MP’s remarks an attack on business and consumers, who are also eligible to free newspapers if they have a myWaitrose loyalty card.

Mr Sawford wrote to all MPs with a Waitrose in their constituency asking them to lobby the company to change the offer in the “spirit of fair competition” or risk threatening independent coffee shops and newsagents. He urged MPs to write to Mark Price, Waitrose managing director, to tell him “his company is acting in a way that will further destroy the British high street”.

A second Labour MP, Bill Esterson, spoke in the Commons recently about the “disastrous” impact the free coffee was having on independent coffee shops in his Sefton Central constituency.

Mr Price told the Financial Times that Mr Sawford was “completely misguided”. A Labour spokesman said: “Andy Sawford was raising an issue particular to his constituency. This is not something Labour is even remotely considering.”   

Jane Merrick