So now we know. Ever since he announced them, Ed Miliband’s opponents have attempted to portray his party reform plans as a rupture to Labour’s historic link with the trade unions and a severing of its relationship with millions of working men and women, who are supposedly steadfastly against his proposed changes.
The former claim is nothing more than the kind of hollow rhetorical device employed by those who lack confidence in the validity of their case. What is significant is that the emptiness of the latter assertion has now been exposed. As Labour Uncut’s recent YouGov poll of affiliated trade unionists shows, 60 per cent support Miliband’s plans, with only one in five opposing them. In short, it is the Labour leader, not the hard left or the leadership of some unions, who represents the views of the majority of rank-and-file trade unionists.
We should not find this surprising: at the heart of Miliband’s proposals is the notion that individual trade union members should be allowed to decide for themselves whether they wish to become affiliated members of the Labour party, rather than being automatically enrolled. While the consequences of such a change are, as Miliband has recognised by setting up the Collins review, complex, the case for it is simple. It is about democracy and freedom of choice.
There is a historical parallel here which should give the opponents of reform pause for thought. By scuppering Barbara Castle’s proposed In Place of Strife industrial relations reforms in 1969, which sought to place power in the hands of individual trade unionists by, for instance, requiring secret ballots to be held ahead of strikes, the forces of conservatism in Labour’s ranks did both the party and the movement immense damage. With industrial relations left unreformed by Labour, the door was left open for the Conservatives to introduce their own, rather less palatable, reforms – ones which, indeed, the 40 per cent of trade unionists who voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1983 implicitly endorsed.
After its attempts to redraw constituency boundaries to its own advantage, reform party funding in its own interests, tamper with electoral registration laws so as to disadvantage the young, poor and ethnic minorities, and limit the ability of charities to potentially campaign against its policies in the run-up to a general election, who would really bet against a future Conservative government taking an axe to an unreformed and undemocratic Labour link with the trade unions?
Miliband’s reforms should be the catalyst for engaging millions of individual trade unionists in a more meaningful, democratic relationship with the Labour party. And the consequences of such a change cannot be ducked. The power of party members should be boosted by the abolition of the electoral college which elects the party’s leader and its replacement by One Member One Vote, with MPs retaining their right to shortlist candidates and levy-payers given the same vote as party members. The unions’ domination of the National Executive Committee and votes at party conference also needs to be reformed to ensure that individual members and levy-payers have a far greater say and the under-representation of groups such as Labour councillors is addressed. On this, too, Miliband will have the support of members of affiliated trade unions, 61 per cent of whom want to end the union block vote at conference and 51 per cent of whom want to see the union section of the electoral college scrapped, according to Labour Uncut’s poll. A further 63 per cent support abolishing the seats reserved for the unions on the NEC.
We have long supported Miliband’s plans for a primary of party supporters to pick Labour’s candidate for the London mayoralty and, where membership of constituency parties is so low as to be unrepresentative, to select parliamentary candidates. We would, however, go further and allow any constituency Labour party to opt for a primary if it wished.
Together, Miliband’s reforms represent a chance to open up and democratise both Labour’s relationship with individual trade unions and its internal decision-making and policymaking processes by increasing the role of party members; as well as, by the use of primaries, the role of Labour voters in picking the candidate they will be asked to turn out for and support in elections.
But, for Miliband to succeed, the case for his reforms has to be made and won in the Labour party. Tony Blair’s fight for the new Clause IV of Labour’s constitution in 1995 succeeded because his opponents were out-organised, out-argued and out-voted in debates and meetings the length and breadth of the country. Of the 470 CLPs which followed the NEC’s advice to ballot their members, 467 backed Blair; the trade unions which supported the new Clause IV did so after balloting their members and winning their backing. Those that did not ballot their members simply voted to oppose change. That is why we believe a ballot of all party members on the final package of proposals is so important.
Now is the time for Miliband’s supporters – from whichever part of the party they hail – to come together and launch a similar effort. The minority – in the Labour party and the affiliated unions – who oppose change must not be allowed to frustrate the will of the majority. It is time for a new campaign for Labour party democracy.
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