Ed Miliband tells unions: Labour's funding reforms could create a Labour party of 500,000 members

The Labour leader will tell his union critics they are denying a ‘real voice’ to members

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Ed Miliband will raise the stakes in his battle with the trade unions on Tuesday by declaring that his plans to reform Labour’s union links could create a party with 500,000 members.

In a speech to the TUC conference, the Labour leader will confront his critics head-on, accusing union leaders of denying their members the “real voice” in the party that his plans would give them. He wants to make them actively “opt in” to Labour as individuals, instead of being affiliated en bloc by their union as at present.

“We have three million working men and women affiliated to our party. But the vast majority play no role. They are affiliated in name only,” Mr Miliband will tell the Brighton conference. “That wasn’t the vision of [Labour’s] founders. I don’t think it’s your vision either. And it’s certainly not my vision.”

His unrepentant message threatens to raise tensions with union bosses, with whom he will hold private talks today. Labour MPs claim the speech is a critical element of Mr Miliband’s attempts to restore his authority after what has been a difficult summer. 

Mr Miliband will tell the conference: “This is an historic opportunity to begin bringing people back into the decisions which affect their lives. It means we could become a Labour Party not of 200,000 people, but 500,000.” Labour’s membership peaked at 405,000 in 1997, when Tony Blair won power, but is now 187,500.

Mr Miliband will admit building a mass-membership party will be a “massive challenge”. He will tell unions: “It is you who have been telling me year after year about a politics that is detached from the lives of working people. That’s why we must have the courage to change.” He will accuse David Cameron of “writing off” UK’s 6.5 million trade unionists.

Union leaders fear Mr Miliband’s plan will weaken the party’s links with its union founders. But senior Labour figures suspect union bosses want to preserve their personal clout. They welcomed a YouGov poll for the Labour Uncut blog, revealed in The Independent yesterday, showing 60 per of the members of Labour-affiliated unions welcome the reforms and only 20 per cent oppose them. “It shows... hundreds of thousands are excited by the prospect of their voice being heard by a major political party,” said a Labour source.

But Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, urged Labour not to be “embarrassed” by its historic link with the unions. He told a TUC fringe meeting: “We are the real voice of decent working people. Our Labour leadership has to start demonstrating they are on the side of ordinary working people, with policies that takes us away from the path to poverty.”