The special conference which will meet to debate Ed Miliband’s proposed party reforms in March is potentially the most significant gathering of the Labour party since it met in Wembley in January 1981 and adopted a series of measures which triggered the departure of four former cabinet ministers and the formation of the Social Democratic party. Thankfully, the special conference in three months’ time in London provides Miliband with an opportunity to reform his party in a way which enhances, rather than fatally undermines, its electoral prospects.
But for this opportunity to be seized, Labour’s leader needs to urgently do two things. First, Miliband must use the new year to launch a proper debate within the party about what he intends. Since his speech last July in which he outlined his intentions in the wake of the allegations surrounding the selection in Falkirk, there has been too little public discussion of changes about which many in Labour’s ranks have legitimate concerns. We have urged a debate akin to that which accompanied the adoption of the new Clause IV in 1995. This is in Miliband’s own interests: in the absence of reassurance and persuasion, those who seek simply to preserve the status quo have had free rein to sow doubts which have not yet been sufficiently addressed. We also urged an all-member ballot to approve the proposals, which – with some careful planning – could have accompanied voting in next year’s National Executive Committee elections in order to minimise costs. This was a missed opportunity.
Perhaps more importantly, a series of reforms which are underpinned by the Labour leader’s desire to replace machine politics with a more open, democratic party cannot be seen to have been won by horse-trading and deals behind closed doors. It is thus not simply the substance of the final package of reforms that Miliband puts before the special conference which is important, but the process by which that package is arrived at and its approval achieved.
Second, too much of the debate which has occurred has, perhaps understandably, focused simply on Labour’s relationship with the unions. The more fundamental question – what should a modern progressive party look like? – has too often been lost. Miliband does not, of course, have a blank sheet to redesign the party and its institutions, but one critical test should be applied to judge the final reform package: the degree to which the power of individual party members, trade unionists, and Labour supporters throughout the country is enhanced by them.
So what might reforms animated by this principle look like? Among the measures proposed in Progress’ response to the Collins review, approved by our elected strategy board last month, three stand out.
First, Progress firmly supports the retention of Labour’s link with the trade unions. But to strengthen the party’s relationship with individual trade unionists, the link needs to become more open, transparent and democratic. That is why we support all affiliated unions being required to create a system modelled on that already adopted by Unison. Members would have the chance to join either a Labour-affiliated fund or a general political fund. Donations to Labour would be derived from the former and membership of that fund would not be open to members of other political parties, and the administration of it would only be open to Labour party members. Trade unionists who opt in to the fund would then have the opportunity to become affiliated members of the Labour party. They would be able to vote in a one member, one vote ballot in the party’s leadership elections and in any primary the party holds. Crucially, those standing in such elections must be allowed to communicate directly with, and canvass, these affiliated members.
Second, the NEC must be reformed to enhance the power of members. We support the recommendation of the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation in its submission to Refounding Labour in 2011 to substantially increase the number of constituency representatives. We believe each region of England, along with Scotland and Wales, should elect their own representative. For too long, regions such as the north-east of England have been effectively shut out from the NEC; such a change will put an end to this. Unlike TULO, however, we do not propose any cut in the number of NEC seats held by the unions, simply to increase from six to 11 those elected by party members.
It is also time that Labour’s councillors receive proper representation on the NEC so that the insights of those governing large swaths of the country are heard more clearly in Labour’s national conversation. We would, therefore, double from two to four the number of local government representatives. This would also reflect the fact that, through the levy on their allowances, councillors are now the greatest single source of income for the party.
Finally, we have long argued that Labour supporters in the country should have a greater say in the selection of the candidates the party will ask them to vote for. We support, therefore, Miliband’s suggestion that Labour’s candidate for the London mayoralty should be chosen by a primary open to all Labour supporters in London. We also believe Miliband is right to want to ensure that, where a constituency party’s membership is so low as to be unrepresentative of the local community, such a primary should be held. Primaries should, therefore, be automatically triggered in Labour-held seats where party membership falls below 200. Such a rule would, indeed, have prevented the whole sorry affair which originally characterised Labour’s selection in Falkirk.
Miliband’s opportunity is a historic one. History – and the voters – will look kindly upon him if he completes the process of reform with the same bravery and determination with which he launched it.
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