As Ed Miliband puts the finishing touches to his Labour conference speech next Tuesday, it would be very surprising indeed if it did not contain a major passage on his reform of the link between party and trade unions. It is not just that the subject of the Falkirk selection fiasco, and the resulting announcement of a programme of widespread reform, will still be very fresh in delegates’ minds.
It is that Miliband has clearly staked his leadership on that programme’s success.
As Ray Collins has set out in his interim report for the party today, primaries are a central component of the reforms. Ed has suggested the use of a US-style primary to select Labour’s candidate for London Mayor and raised their potential use in parliamentary selections where the MP is retiring or local party membership has dwindled.
Using a primary to select Labour’s London mayoral candidate kills several birds with one stone: it aids Miliband with his current headache over who might be a reasonable candidate with wide appeal; it would prove that such a process works, on a grand scale, and clear the way for its use in selecting candidates for parliament; and, most importantly, it would ensure no stitch-ups by special interest groups, as was alleged in Falkirk over the union Unite’s involvement.
It has, however, two disadvantages. One is that primaries are costly, and the party is broke. And the second is that the risk is high: a failure in London would be a very high-profile failure indeed, and would surely kill the idea of primaries for MP selections. It could even stop the whole reform programme in its tracks.
So the debate has become somewhat heated already: union leaders see this as a way for the party to clip their wings, and party members are nervous that the party might collapse financially, or even politically.
All of these actors, then, might be interested to take note of the following. Some 50% of Labour supporters say they would either probably or definitely take part in this type of primary – even if non-members had to pay £1 to register – with 15% saying they would definitely take part and 35 per cent probably (if they didn’t have to pay the £1, the total figure rises to 69 per cent).
And again, while many affiliated union leaders, it seems, would prefer the status quo of having half the votes reserved for their members, it seems that, as we showed last week over other reforms, their members don’t necessarily agree: 53% of them showed interest in taking part in this type of primary, with 28% saying they would definitely take part.
If we take the 889,918 people who voted for Ken Livingstone in 2012, and if even only half of the “probable” supporters took part, this translates into 289,223 participants and a sum of well over £200,000 towards costs, allowing for members not to pay. So we can start to see a way through to primaries without breaking the party.
Now, at the moment, union members already vote as individuals in the mayoral selections. However, if we were to apply truly open primaries – with no prior nominations process – to parliamentary selections, a crucial change takes place: the ability of unions’ national political offices to drop their preferred candidates onto local long-lists would disappear. At the same time, they could boost the funds of local parties, we estimate by over £10,000, to help cover its costs (given an average vote in 2010 for a victorious Labour MP of 33,359.)
The polling was carried out for a book by the centrist Labour blog Labour Uncut, to be launched at party conference, titled Labour’s manifesto uncut: How to win in 2015 and why. Along with manifesto proposals, it will also contain a section on how the party reform agenda could boost Miliband’s leadership.
Now, Miliband continues to attract criticism from both the left of his own party and union leaders for going too far with his reforms, and commentators on the right because they think he will not see them through (from the Tories, quite possibly because they are afraid he will see them through, and make them look bad).
But it is starting to become clear that the reforms are not only achievable and a welcome boost to his leadership; they are what his own supporters, and union members, actually want.
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