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Rob Marchant: Revamping Labour's union ties could help Ed Miliband

Some activists see Blairite diehards trying to ‘break the link’ – but this is at best paranoid

As delegates gather in Bournemouth for the Trades Union Congress, one subject will surely be a major topic of conversation for delegates from the larger unions: the future of their relationship with the Labour party.

While the relationship between the party leader and the leaders of the main unions has never been easy for either side, it is safe to say that relations are at a turning point in their 113-year-old marriage. As things stand, a smooth and trouble-free conference season seems an increasingly remote prospect.

To recap, the disastrous selection process for Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Falkirk, where allegations of malpractice triggered the resignation of Tom Watson  as its election campaign coordinator – and which even now is subject to wildly differing versions of events – has kicked off a wholesale reform programme of everything from party funding to MP candidate selection and conference voting.

Then, last Friday night on the eve of the TUC, the party suddenly accepted that no wrongdoing had taken place. Simultaneously, candidate Karie Murphy – Watson’s office manager and friend of Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union – pulled out, in what seemed almost certain to be some kind of deal, after threats that Unite could boycott the party's conference later this month.

Although McCluskey, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, accepted the principle of reform of the union link from the outset, one wonders if this stance will continue. And other union leaders have been notably less enthusiastic.

The GMB responded last Monday by announcing a cut in affiliation fees of almost 90 per cent, estimating that only around a tenth of current levy-paying members would sign up.

McCluskey’s former flatmate Watson, has also blogged that the proposals could be “a very serious development which threatens a pillar of our democracy”.

A number of other affiliated union leaders – perhaps the majority – along with some journalists and Labour activists on the left of the party, have been consistently down on the idea of reform, complaining of "Blairite diehards" looking to “break the link” with the unions. Given the scarcity of Blairites near the levers of power in the party and Miliband’s highly visible efforts to distance himself from New Labour, this narrative seems at best paranoid and quite possibly delusional.

In particular, some are already attempting to use the apparent “clean bill of health” given to Unite over Falkirk – the initial trigger for the reforms, after all – as a clinching reason as to why they are unnecessary.

All these people are probably in for a surprise.

Labour Uncut is a centrist Labour blog written by a team with decades of experience campaigning and working for the party. A week ago we had polling carried out by YouGov, which rather shows that union members agree with Miliband.

An astonishing 60 per cent of members of affiliated unions think that the outline reform proposals are sensible, against only 20 per cent who think the unions should continue to wield more influence.

And a further 10 per cent dislike the proposals because they do not think they go far enough – that Labour should scrap links altogether.

A further 61 per cent also said that union voting power at conference should either be reduced or abolished completely, and 63 per cent of union members would abolish union-reserved places on the NEC.

These figures are compelling. Apart from anything else, they certainly call into question the extent to which some union leaders are actually in touch with the opinions of their own members.

The polling was carried out for a pamphlet for Labour Party conference, titled Labour’s manifesto uncut: How to win in 2015 and why, which aims to use hard numbers to “think the unthinkable” on a range of potential manifesto issues. In addition, it will include proposals on how a party reform agenda successfully executed, far from being the meltdown scenario being suggested by some, could not only revitalise a somewhat neglected party organisation but provide a springboard for a recovery in Miliband’s personal poll ratings.

Given the revelatory nature of the polling on just this one issue, we think the pamphlet will make for pretty interesting reading when the party faithful gather in Brighton in two weeks’ time.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear. After Falkirk and the reform proposals – not to mention continuing tensions over a perceived lack of Labour support for the unions’ anti-austerity agenda – it is shaping up to be an unforgettable conference season for us all.

Rob Marchant is a columnist for Labour Uncut and contributor to Independent Voices. 'Labour’s manifesto uncut: How to win in 2015 and why' will be published on September 23.