Blair's disdain for the unions may yet backfire

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Shortly after Labour won the 1929 election with the largest number of seats (though not an absolute majority), George V's press secretary, Lord Stamfordham, told Ramsay MacDonald that he expected the King would speak to him about the National Executive Committee, which was "popularly supposed to have much control" over a Labour government. MacDonald assured Stamfordham that this was "not the case". However, two members of the Cabinet would act as "sort of liaison officers" between party and government. He emphasised that the government was never influenced by and certainly never followed "the dictates of the committee" - unless the committee's views coincided with the government's.

When MacDonald did see the King after deciding to accept office (he had been doubtful at first), he found that the Sovereign was more interested in whether he was satisfied "in his own conscience" that his party was justified in assuming the title "Labour". How many of the "gentlemen whose names they had been discussing" - they had been talking about the composition of MacDonald's Cabinet - had ever undertaken "hard manual work". MacDonald, according to Harold Nicolson's life of George V, replied that "he himself at least had actually gained that qualification". He then kissed hands and agreed to form an administration.

No Labour prime minister since has been a worker by hand. Lord Callaghan was an Inland Revenue officer. MacDonald's credentials were even flimsier: he had been a teacher, a lecturer, a journalist and a political organiser. In Mr Tony Blair's Cabinet, the nearest thing to a worker by hand will be Mr John Prescott, a former ship's purser who attended Ruskin College, Oxford, and Hull University.

But I do not want to go into the members of Mr Blair's Cabinet and their backgrounds, fascinating though it is, except to say this: last week the Times reported that Mr Blair would honour the Standing Order of 1980 requiring him to appoint all elected members of the Shadow Cabinet to the real one. This accords with my own information. The report then speculated that his Cabinet might reach 28, if we took into account the additional people he wished to appoint. It went on to assert that Mr Blair could make his Cabinet as large as he liked.

In practice, this is not quite correct. The maximum number to whom salaries may be paid as holders of certain ministerial offices is laid down by the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975. The House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 prescribes that no more than 95 holders of specified ministerial offices may sit in the Commons. There are various ways round this legislation: to appoint peers; pass an Act legitimating a particular minister's position and salary; give jobs to people who are rich enough not to need one. Harold Lever did not take a salary when he was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1974-79.

I do not discern many of Mr Blair's likely lads or lasses who would be prepared - or be in a position - to do this. Indeed, I can think of only one offhand: Mr Geoffrey Robinson. The short point is, however, that quite apart from the Standing Order of 1980 Mr Blair cannot do exactly as he pleases when it comes to assembling a Cabinet, which is in practice limited to 24.

But when it comes to running the Labour Party, Mr Blair really is doing more or less as he pleases. The document Labour into Power: a Framework for Partnership contains the most important proposals for change since 1993, when the National Executive advanced the new systems for electing the party leader and choosing parliamentary candidates. These were approved narrowly at the Brighton conference after a bravura speech by Mr Prescott. The changes marked a break with the 1981-93 period. The party's curious system of membership, which divides members into individual and - often non-existent - affiliated members, enabled power to be transferred from MPs to trade union bosses.

This was done through the "electoral college" in which the unions had the preponderant voice. As the late Jeffrey Thomas, QC and member for Abertillery, said at the time: "Electoral college? Sounds more like a comprehensive to me." But the break was not complete. The electoral college for choosing a leader was retained, though the ratios were changed from 40:30:30 for, respectively, unions, constituencies and MPs to one-third for each group.

What was more important was that the method of voting was changed. Trade unionists (who had formally to express support for the Labour Party) voted as individuals, not as members of a block. So did individual party members, instead of having votes cast on their behalf by their general committees.

Mr Blair was the beneficiary of these changes, but their author had been John Smith, who died in 1994. Mr Blair has taken them to their logical destination at an accelerating and at what has seemed to some an alarming pace. Every time he has avoided a derailment or a crash. It looks as if he will prove equally successful on this occasion. The destination - he has not reached it yet - is that Labour should be a party of individual members. The corollary is that the unions no longer have any place in it. How can they? For the peculiar system of affiliation by groups will have been abolished.

The building at the apex of the old system was the National Executive. It had one section reserved for women (an early piece of positive discrimination, though they were chosen by the union leaders), another for the unions, another for the constituencies. The unions sent, still send, their second strings. The constituencies have sent some rum customers, of whom the rummest was Tom Driberg. Poet, prose stylist, aesthete and promiscuous homosexual, he was on for 23 years.

This baroque structure, its facade crumbling for years and badly in need of a lick of paint, is now to be destroyed. In office, Mr Blair is to be able to nominate Cabinet ministers to serve in the new building. But it does not do to be cynical. It is quite possible that the proposals will produce unintended consequences. They include a Joint Policy Committee comprising the leader (who is also Prime Minister), the deputy leader and the chairman, vice-chairman and treasurer of the party, together with equal but unspecified numbers of NEC members and Labour ministers.

There will also be a weekly, private meeting of the Prime Minister, the deputy leader (who may or may not be deputy Prime Minister) and both the chairman and the general secretary of the party. At meetings of the NEC the Prime Minister, the deputy leader "or other designate Cabinet minister should present a political report". Moreover, "members of the NEC should be consulted and involved in helping to clear priorities for the government".

Not only this: "The NEC should be consulted about priorities for the Queen's Speech either at the NEC meeting following the general election or at a special NEC meeting. This would then become an annual event preceding the Queen's Speech." I have no idea what view Her Majesty takes, but her grandfather would have been horrified.