Sorry, Ed, it's too late to say you're no union man

Miliband needed to demonstrate his independence within months of his election

Share

Ed Miliband should have seen this trouble coming. Indeed, he did. Having won the Labour leadership by a trade-union ramp against party members and MPs, he knew he had to prove he was not the unions' creature.

Thus one of his spin doctors, Tom Baldwin, briefed the newspapers before the 2011 Labour conference to say that Miliband would announce rule changes to cut the trades unions' 50 per cent share of the vote at conferences in future. Only it never happened.

A few days later, we were told Ed Miliband would be proposing "the biggest change to the party's structures for 20 years", but the plan now consisted of signing up a new category of "registered supporters". The idea was that, if more than 50,000 signed up nationally, they would be given a tiny share of the vote in leadership elections. This would dilute union influence, but hardly at all, and it would equally infinitesimally dilute the influence of party members and MPs. There are still two web pages where you can sign up, but nothing has been heard of the scheme since.

That was Miliband's attempt to anticipate the inevitable attack on him for being in hock to the sectional interests of the unions, the two biggest, Unite and the GMB, in particular. A failed attempt, two years ago, to dilute the grip of the unions on Labour Party policy. He was thinking of returning to the question at this year's annual conference, with some kind of defiant declaration of independence, but now it is too late. A routine shenanigans over the selection of a Labour candidate to replace Eric "Street Fighting Man" Joyce in Falkirk caught up with him.

So when the Tory attack was unleashed by David Cameron in the Commons last week, in one of his least prime ministerial and most effective performances, the Leader of the Opposition crumpled. To every question Miliband asked, Cameron replied, "Unite" and "Len McCluskey", the union's leader.

Having refused to accept the resignation of his election co-ordinator, Tom Watson, the day before, Miliband had another conversation with him. As a result, Watson resigned from the Shadow Cabinet. Watson is a paradoxical politician: the Brownite assassin whose resignation as a minister in 2006 precipitated Tony Blair's departure, who is also an engaging and principled MP. He is a fixer credited with supernatural powers, yet he has been unable to fix a high position for himself. He wanted to be deputy leader of the party at one point, but is a backbencher again.

He resigned because he is a friend of McCluskey and he was involved in Unite's attempt to influence the Falkirk selection. In his resignation letter, he said that he hadn't seen the report of the party's investigation into allegations of sharp practice, but he believed "there are an awful lot of spurious suppositions being written". Watson seems to have seen more clearly than Miliband that he was a liability, and resigned when he should have been sacked – just as, seven years ago, he resigned before Blair could sack him.

Watson's departure is a reminder that the Blair-Brown divide has yet to heal. He complained in his resignation letter that other members of the Shadow Cabinet had been briefing journalists against him. It is worse than that: several have recently been in to see Miliband – not just to complain about his toleration of Watson, but about their feeling that the party is "drifting".

"On the economy, immigration, welfare and Europe," one shadow minister said to me last week, "we are losing four-nil."

But the crisis of party organisation is fundamental. The clique that runs Unite wants to put "working-class", "left-wing" candidates into the 41 Labour seats it has identified, by which it means candidates who reflect its unrepresentative ideology. To the extent that it succeeds, it will tilt the party away from the more centrist approach that even Ed Miliband knows is its best chance of winning.

It is already too late for Miliband to make much difference to which candidates are selected for the election. And it is too late for him to shake off damage done by his failure decisively to act against the undue influence over Labour of the leftists who run the main unions. If he thinks McCluskey is a problem, wait until he retires and is replaced by the even more anti-Labour Mark Serwotka.

Miliband needed within months of his election as leader to demonstrate his independence. He could, say, have opened up the choice of Labour candidates to primary elections among Labour supporters. There are all sorts of objections to US-style primaries: they are expensive for parties to run, and the rich and famous have a big advantage. But, as a Labour friend of mine said, observing the quality of the current parliamentary party, "What's wrong with rich and famous?"

It is, above all, too late for Miliband to recover the initiative. He belatedly announced that selection rules would be tightened to prevent unions or anybody else "buying" party members without their knowledge, which was already against Labour rules. He will unveil all manner of cosmetic changes to make it look as if he is standing up to McCluskey. But this is reacting to events, not leadership.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/johnrentoul

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Deputy Editor's Letter:

Independent Voices, Indy Voices Rhodri Jones
A couple stand in front of a beautiful cloudy scene  

In sickness and in health: It’s been stormy but there are blessings in the clouds

Rebecca Armstrong
Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor