Yesterday, like every other second Saturday in July, I attended Durham Miners’ Gala. I marched in with the lodge banners, many from my constituency. I’m proud of the heritage and the day reminds me of my father, 40 years a miner. He was proud of his NUM medal he received on his forty years membership of the union. I have a bit to go to match him, but I’ve been a member of the TGWU, now UNITE, for 27 years. Although the mining industry in Durham no longer exists, the Miners’ Gala is still a strong symbol of solidarity. And I also agree with miners’ leader Mick McGahey: “If Labour is not a movement, it is a monument.” He understood that Movements move, they do not stand still. That is why Ed Miliband’s proposals for trade union levy-payers to become members of the Labour Party in their own right is movement in the right direction.
I remember talking to Tony Blair back in the 1990s about Party reform. He wanted to see a mass membership Labour Party, reflective of the needs and aspirations of the community. He transformed the direction of the Party through a new clause IV, but we didn’t pull off the ambition of mass Labour participation. I believe Ed Miliband is on the verge of doing just that.
I have believed for years that Labour supporting trade union levy-payers should be encouraged to become individual member of the Labour Party so that the Party’s relationship is with trade unionists not just a trade union. This, in my view does not weaken the link between Party and union but strengthens it. The link is mended.
Let potentially hundreds of thousands of Labour Party supporting trade union levy-payers be the new bond between Party and trade unions. Each trusted with a say in the party through one member, one vote. Surely we need to learn what trade unionists think other than through the prism of the block vote.
The key part of Ed Miliband’s speech this week was: “I do not want any individual to paying money to the Labour Party in affiliation fees unless they have deliberately chosen to do so....in the twenty first century it doesn’t make sense for anyone to be affiliated to a political party unless they have chosen to do so.”
This can only be right.
But the debate should not be seen as only an internal debate between Labour and its affiliates. The prize for me is much bigger. There are three million levy payers, to attract only ten per cent into membership will place Labour on a trajectory of a mass membership. We will know the concerns and aspirations of individual trade unionists, in both their workplace and the community where they live.
We should not stop there. Over 80 per cent of working people in the private sector are not in a trade union. We must also reach out to them. Many of them vote Labour. Ed Miliband’s commitment to a community based Labour Party is clear. A mass membership Labour Party should be the cornerstone of a progressive centre left movement. A Labour movement that reflects the world as it is in the 21st Century.
I grew up in a County Durham pit village. Those days have gone. But I remember this: back then trade unions were at their best when they were active in the community as well as in the work place. I call on them today to join the endeavour to create a politics which is inclusive, not exclusive, which is the Tory way.
Tony Blair’s reforms of the Labour Party happened in the Twentieth century. Ed Miliband could prove to be the greatest Labour Party reformer of the Twenty-first century, if not ever. He needs our support to see these proposals through.