This has been a historic week in British politics. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, broke with the last of the Labour Party’s traditional fictions in a courageous speech on Tuesday. He trod where party reformers – Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair – feared to tread. He intends to change the way that three million trade union members are affiliated to the Labour Party.
Although union members can opt out of contributing to Labour funds, many of them don’t know they are doing so. Mr Miliband’s crucial sentence was this: “In the 21st century, it just doesn’t make sense for anyone to be affiliated to a political party unless they have chosen to do so.” It didn’t make sense in the 20th century either. A form of organisation that came naturally to the founders of the Labour Representation Committee at the beginning of the 20th century had become ossified and unrepresentative by the 1970s. By that time, when union leaders found themselves trapped in a cycle that brought the economy to the edge of ruin, they were marshalling ghost armies of made-up millions. Trade unions, which were once a vibrant expression of social solidarity, had became lobbyists for selfishness, and their relationship with the party they had founded had become a charade.
Mr Miliband’s may seem an arcane change, of interest only to those who know, for example, the difference between Anthony Crosland and Dick Crossman. It is not. It is a fundamental alteration that pulls the thread of the remaining fabric of old Labour. Once the Labour Party has a relationship with trade unionists as individuals rather than as a block, the difficult legacies of the past start to resolve themselves.
It becomes insupportable, for instance, that the policies of a party of government should be decided in negotiation with union leaders representing the sectional interests of groups of, among others, public sector workers. The 50 per cent share of the votes at Labour’s annual conference wielded by trade union delegations will have to go. Previous cosmetic changes have tried to conceal the structure of power. General secretaries no longer hold up a card purporting to representing millions of votes, and much of the detail of policy-making has been diverted into the opaque National Policy Forum. But even Mr Blair had to negotiate his pre-election programmes line by line with union bosses.
Mr Miliband’s brave statement of principle also means the end of the electoral college used to elect the party leader. When the present system of dividing the vote in equal thirds between MPs, party members and trade unionists was brought in by Mr Smith in 1993, it was hailed as a great democratic step forward – precisely because trade unionists would vote as individuals, one person, one vote. But Mr Miliband’s own election exposed the flaw in that model, because the big union machines organised members on a low turnout to vote for him, going so far as to enclose the ballot papers in envelopes containing the union leaders’ endorsement.
The measure of Mr Miliband’s speech was in the Prime Minister’s discomfiture the next day. Having humiliated the Labour leader the previous week by responding “Unite” and “Len McCluskey” in answer to every question, he plainly did not expect Mr Miliband to return to the subject. But Mr Miliband, as he has shown before, proved to be surprisingly ruthless. Having secured his position by ensuring that he was right on the fundamental question of democracy based on active choice, whatever details have still to be worked out, Mr Miliband returned every strong stroke from Mr Cameron and forced him on to the defensive on MPs’ second jobs and on capping political donations.
This was a week when Mr Miliband grew in stature. He is, as one of his predecessors once said of the Labour Party, best when he is at his boldest.
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