Ed Miliband has raised the stakes in his battle to dilute the power that trade union bosses wield inside Labour by gambling on forcing through his reforms quickly.
A special Labour conference will be held next March to approve Mr Miliband's proposal that 3m trade unionists will have to "opt in" to funding the party rather than having to "opt out" as at present if they do not wish to do so. The unions will hold half the votes at the London conference, so they could inflict a humiliating defeat on Mr Miliband by persuading a tiny number of constituency parties, who will possess the other half, to oppose the historic shake-up.
Labour officials confirmed last night that the changes could also include reducing the unions' share of the vote at future conferences and their 33 per cent share of the electoral college which chooses the party leader. At present, MPs and party members also have a third of the votes, and their proportion could be increased at the unions' expense.
By calling a special conference, Mr Miliband will invite comparisons with Tony Blair, who used the same device in 1995 to win approval for his proposal for Labour to ditch Clause IV, Labour's commitment to old-style public ownership. Allies hope Mr Miliband's move on union affiliation fees will be viewed by the public as an equally symbolic break with the party's past.
The Labour leader told a meeting in London tonight (Mon): "We're going to build a new way of doing politics. We want to open up our policy-making, clean up the lobbying industry and take the big money out of politics. We want to let people back in. So I want all Labour Party members, supporters, trade union members involved in this dialogue, leading up to the special conference in the spring to agree change."
Lord (Ray) Collins, Labour's former general secretary, who is heading a review into the party-union link, will submit an interim report to Labour's annual conference in Brighton in September. Officials said he would "advise on any other rule changes that may be necessary as a result of these reforms," confirming that this could include the proportion of union votes at the annual conference and in leadership contests.
Options include a "big bang" reform in which the unions' voting share on the two Labour bodies is reduced at the same time as the switch to "opting in" is made. Another idea is a two-stage process in which the unions' power would be cut if they failed to recruit a certain number of their affiliated members to the party. That would give them an incentive to do so.
The prospect of losing voting clout will anger some trade union barons, who have already warned that Labour could lose 90 per cent of its funding from affiliation fees by changing to "opting in." Mr Miliband is gambling that union leaders will not want to be seen as defending a system that is hard to justify to the public. He also wants to force through the changes next year to head off criticism that they would not take effect until after the 2015 election.
There will be consultation exercise on the Collins report after the September conference. Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader, and Phil Wilson, Mr Blair's successor as MP for Sedgefield who helped him drop Clause IV, will try to "sell" the proposals to party members. Jon Trickett, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, and Rachel Reeves, the shadow Chief Treasury Secretary, will consider what further changes are needed to turn Labour into a "mass membership" party, including whether the unions should retain their current voting clout.
A survey of 712 Unite members funded by Lord Ashcroft, the Conservatives’ former deputy chairman, found that three in 10 would pay into the union’s political fund if they were asked whether they wished to, while 53 per cent would not.
One in three did not know whether they contributed to the fund. Most (57 per cent) preferred an “opt-in” system for the political levy, with only 31 per cent backing the present “opt-out” method. Some 46 per cent disagreed with the union’s decision to donate £12m to Labour since the 2010 election, while 43 per cent agreed.
Lord Ashcroft said Mr McCluskey is right to say that his members are not queuing up to join Labour. “McCluskey rightly observes that whether individual trade unionists will rally to Labour will depend on whether Miliband gives them ‘reasons to want to be associated’ with the party,” he said. “This is largely about policy. But the policies he himself [Mr Miliband] advocates seem unlikely to have the desired effect.”