Ed Miliband's reforms will be costly. Not changing will cost even more

The former Labour home secretary says the fracas in Falkirk is part of a politics whose time is up

Related Topics

Two problems for Labour emerged from the Falkirk fracas. One is organisational, the other ideological. The organisational problem stems from the ability of affiliated trade unions to influence events inside the party on the basis of levy-paying members.

Some of these union members who choose not to opt out of the political levy (around £3 a year of their union membership fee) are members of the Labour Party. They are active in local constituency parties, they deliver leaflets, knock on doors, do all the thankless tasks that help to elect Labour councillors and MPs.

However most levy-payers are at best passive supporters and at worst hostile to everything Labour stands for. Yet they provide authority for trade unions to participate in the affairs of the party through separate structures over which the party leader has almost no control. The leader may have no control over the levy-payers but they certainly have control over the leader – exercising a third of the electoral college votes.

Ed Miliband has served notice on "power through passivity". His proposed reform goes much wider than simply opting into the levy rather than opting out. Those who opt into the levy paid to the Labour Party will become members, assigned to branches. No longer would they be phantom members deployed from a separate power base outside the leader's control.

This could cost the party money it badly needs. But maintaining a system where individuals are linked to a party they don't support through a decision they haven't made makes Labour part of the old politics that Ed is seeking to change. In such circumstances party funding is a second-order issue.

The ramifications are clear. Party members will decide policy and if the electoral college survives it will be on the basis of a 50/50 split between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the membership. Despite John Smith's OMOV (one member one vote) reforms of the early 1990s we currently persist with an electoral system that is not just OMTV (one member, two votes) but NMOV (non-member, one vote). This will change as a natural consequence of the Miliband revolution.

The ideological problem stems from the conviction of Unite's leadership and some other unions, that Labour should be a purely working-class party. Trade unions have done more than any institution to advance the interests of working people; to provide second and third chances to succeed in education; to nurture hope and aspiration in a more equal society.

Their most important contribution was to create the Labour Party. And while it's true that the original aim of Keir Hardie's Labour Representation Committee (LRC) to get working-class people into Parliament remains entirely relevant, the LRC decided at that historic meeting in 1900 not to be a class-based party. That decision meant that Labour would be a party of government rather than a protest group.

The Labour Party exists to serve the country. For all people regardless of race, colour, creed or class. While it's perfectly legitimate (indeed desirable) to help to get working people elected to Parliament, what was happening in Falkirk was an attempt to fix the system to ensure the election of someone programmed to pursue the narrow class-based politics of the far left.

The sifting process would have excluded the late Harry Ewing, a great Falkirk MP who virtually left his postman's delivery round on the Friday to enter Parliament on the Monday. It would also have excluded Ernie Bevin, the seventh illegitimate child of a Somerset farm worker who founded the Transport and General Workers Union and went on to be one of this country's greatest foreign secretaries.

Bevin is considered a class traitor by those whose only interest in the Labour Party is in using its structures to advance their bankrupt political philosophy. The organisational changes will help in the fight against what Attlee described as "doctrinaire impossibleism".

Levy-paying members are the ghosts in the machine. Ed Miliband's courage and leadership can turn our crucial relationship with the trade union movement into the advantage it should be rather than the liability that incidents such as Falkirk have often portrayed it as.

Alan Johnson is a former Labour home secretary and a former general secretary of the Union of Communication Workers

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Technician - 1st Line

£19000 - £21000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPOR...

Special Needs Teaching Assistant

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Special Educational Needs Teach...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: The SThree group is a world lea...

Year 3 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 TeacherWould you like ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: unbuilt buildings, the new Establishment and polling on Europe

John Rentoul
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London