Miliband must not falter in plans to loosen ties to the unions

The proposals would not only benefit Labour, but democratic politics as whole

Ed Miliband faces a test of his resolve as he prepares to speak to the TUC in Bournemouth. After an inquiry into the affairs of Labour’s Falkirk branch exonerated Unite of allegations that it rigged the selection of a candidate to fight the seat, some Labour MPs predictably are urging him to abandon plans radically to reshape Labour’s relationship with the unions. Grant Shapps, for the Tories, predicts that he has no choice but to do so.

So far, the Labour leader shows no sign of backing down, nor should he. It is true that Mr Miliband stumbled into this row by accident, and the flimsy nature of the evidence of alleged malpractice on Unite’s part should have invited caution. But, political accidents often lead people down unexpected paths. Meanwhile, a new poll of Labour members, which we publish today, should stiffen his determination.

Most significantly, the poll shows that members of Labour-affiliated unions are even keener on Mr Miliband’s reforms than the public as a whole. Sixty per cent of the former, as opposed to 56 per cent of the public generally, believe Labour would become “more democratic” if trade unionists had positively to decide to donate part of their union membership fee to the party. In other words, although Labour faces a financial headache if it distances itself from the unions, there is the distinct prospect of a political dividend.

Mr Milband’s proposals would, in fact, not only benefit Labour, but democratic politics as whole, because they will increase pressure on the Conservatives – currently absent – to agree to wholesale reform of party funding.

For some time an unofficial, cosy truce between the Conservatives and Labour on this issue has been in place, with Labour content to continue relying on union money while the Tories draw sustenance from big business.

The effects of this dependence have been disastrous. Secure in their cash lifelines from their respective patrons, each has allowed its base to wither away. As we reported back in August, Tory party membership has collapsed on an astonishing scale, from around three million in the 1950s to no more than 100,000 today. Labour’s decline is less meteoric, but, worrying enough, down from over a million in the 1950s to less than 200,000 now. The end result is parties that are increasingly disconnected from ordinary people’s concerns and highly vulnerable to lobbying by special interest groups.

Given the state of disenchantment with the big party system, both of them desperately need many more ordinary members, and taking big money out of politics will act as a mighty incentive to go out and get them. Mr Miliband is the first leader of a major party to challenge a rotten consensus. However he got into this row is no longer important; he deserves support from across the political spectrum for the stand that he is taking.

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