Sunday 22 October 2017

UK Labour party leader Ed Miliband on collision course with unions

Ed Miliband who remains locked in an increasingly bitter dispute with Labour's biggest trade union backer
Ed Miliband who remains locked in an increasingly bitter dispute with Labour's biggest trade union backer

Gavin Cordon

Ed Miliband is heading for a new clash with Labour's trade union backers as he sets out plans finally to end the system where individual union members are automatically affiliated to the party.

In the wake of the Falkirk ballot-rigging scandal, the Labour leader will use a keynote speech today to set out what aides are describing as the "biggest party reforms in a generation".

The changes are intended to strengthen the party's links with its individual members while diluting the influence of the trade union barons.

Labour sources insisted that Mr Miliband had always intended to deliver party reform, although there was no attempt to deny that the timing of the announcement was linked to events in Falkirk.

Crucially, however, it was emphasised that the changes would need to be "carefully implemented in detail and over time".

Mr Miliband will not set out a timetable for reform but instead it is expected he will announce the appointment of a "senior party figure" to work through the process of putting it into practice.

Labour sources said they did not believe that it would require a change in party rules, although they suggested they could "formalise" the new arrangements with a vote at party conference.

"We would like to work with the unions and local parties to bring it about. We want to do it in a co-operative way but there are other ways in which you can do it," one source said.

However even before he delivered the speech, Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite - the union at the centre of the Falkirk row - indicated that he would oppose the plan.

Writing in The Guardian he said: "Switching to an 'opt-in' for the political levy wouldn't work - it would require Labour to unite with the Tories to change the law, would debilitate unions' ability to speak for our members and would further undermine unions' status as voluntary, and self-governing, organisations."

Under the proposals, the three million trade unionists currently affiliated to the party through the automatic payment of affiliation fees will in future decide as individuals whether they wish to do so.

In other measures, Mr Miliband will announce plans for Labour's next candidate for mayor of London to be picked through a system of US-style primaries - with the possibility they could be extended to the selection of parliamentary candidates where the local constituency party is weak.

There will also be spending caps in selection contests for Parliament and the European Parliament covering both would-be candidates and any organisation backing them.

A new code of conduct will be drawn up for those seeking parliamentary selection, with the prospect of disqualification if they breach the rules.

Standard constituency agreements with the trade unions will be put in place intended to ensure that no one involved in the selection process can be subjected to "undue local pressure".

In his address to the St Bride's Foundation in London, Mr Miliband will call for an end to "the politics of the machine" - typified by events in Falkirk where Unite is accused of trying to pack the constituency with its members to secure selection of its preferred parliamentary candidate.

"What we saw in Falkirk is part of the death-throes of old politics. It is a symbol of what is wrong with politics. I want to build a better Labour Party - and build a better politics for Britain," he is expected to say.

Officials acknowledged that ending automatic affiliation - which raises £8 million-a-year - would represent a financial "hit" for the party.

However Mr Miliband will argue that it will also provide the opportunity to mobilise trade unionists to get them to become active in the party, involving them directly in its campaigning.

"The problem is not that these ordinary working men and women dominate the Labour Party - the problem is that they are not members of local parties, they are not active in our campaigns," he is expected to say.

"Trade unions should have political funds for all kinds of campaigns and activities as they choose. But I do not want any individual to be paying money to the Labour Party in affiliation fees unless they have deliberately chosen to do so.

"So we need to set a new direction in our relationship with trade union members in which they choose to join Labour through the affiliation fee.

"I believe this idea has huge potential for our party and our politics. It could grow our membership from 200,000 to a far higher number, genuinely rooting us in the life of more people of our country."

Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps dismissed Mr Miliband's plans as meaningless.

"Under Ed Miliband's weak proposals, including a code of conduct that already exists, it would still be the same old Labour Party - bankrolled by the unions, policies rigged by the unions and candidates chosen by the unions," he said.

"The reality is Ed Miliband cannot change Labour because he cannot stand up to the union barons who elected him. That means he's too weak to stand up for hardworking people and too weak to run the country."

Labour former Cabinet minister Peter Hain said Mr Miliband has made it clear he wants to mend the relationship with the unions, not end it.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "Indeed, at a packed meeting of Labour MPs last night, he was strong in his defence of this historic union link but said it had to change."

Mr Hain, who has led the Refounding Labour project set up by Mr Miliband to transform the way the party is run, said Mr McCluskey had been the most "progressive" union boss in talks about an overhaul.

"On Len McCluskey, I remember discussing this with him on the Refounding Labour project. He was the most progressive of all the union leaders in wanting to see local involvement of a real kind."

Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, said the plan would make it more difficult for working people to be heard.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It seems to me the big problem in British politics is (it's) posh politics, that ordinary people don't have a say in what's going on in political parties.

"It's like a political class across all the parties and the one thing that trade unions do through their activities is, if you like, give Labour that focus on what's happening in the workplace, not always successfully because we are not always listened to but when we are listened to, with things like the minimum wage, some of the biggest changes in the history of this country are as a result of the direct link between the Labour Party and the trade unions."

Asked whether he could stop Mr Miliband pushing through the reforms, he replied: "Well, let's see. Let's just see what happens in the process."

He added: "We are going to make sure our voice is heard. We live in a democratic society and as I understand it we are entitled to have our say in the party."

Mr Hayes said an opt in was "a very old fashioned idea" and claimed "nothing excites the political class more than an attack on the trade union movement".

He added: "Let's just be clear, this is all about dog whistles. It's about signalling to people, you know, somehow, there's a problem with the relationship between trade unions...

"I don't think there is.

"I think there is a problem with some people in the party (who) have a great deal of difficulty dealing with ordinary working people," he added.

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