Ed Miliband’s historic break with the unions is bold – but risky

Glass half full? Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

This could be the riskiest move of Ed Miliband’s career. After months of posturing about the changes in the relationship between the Labour Party and the unions, Miliband has clearly set out his plans for the future. Gone will be the “electoral college” through which the affiliated unions have one-third of the votes for the party leader. In its place will be an arguably more democratic “one member, one vote” system, which – had it been in place for the last leadership election would have almost certainly chosen David Miliband over Ed.

The plans are still to be approved by Labour’s 32-member National Executive Committee to which they were sent at the weekend. Miliband must be pretty certain of support from Labour’s grandees - as, when the changes take full effect in 2019 they will radically reduce the influence of the unions, something union leaders will be smarting over.

Most of the union bosses have been remarkably quiet about the proposed changes: the Unite twitter feed was quoting Len McLuskey on the subject over the weekend, but not saying very much. His comment that “the relationship needed reviewing. If proposals go through, Unite will engage rapidly”, indicates mild agreement. This was followed quickly by: “I can always dream the Labour Party will become more radical.” The suggestion is that that Unite and other affiliated unions have accepted that Miliband and his supporters will not budge on this – and so they are making the best of a bad job.

Bigger than Clause IV

Miliband claims he is completing the unfinished modernisation work of his predecessors John Smith, Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair. All these former leaders played their part in modernising Labour. The most significant reform for New Labour was Blair’s removal of Clause IV from the Party Constitution. But changes to the way the party leader is selected may prove to be even more significant as the defining moment for Labour.

The biggest risk to Labour is financial. Currently, unless they opt out, all union members pay a £3.50 levy directly to the party. The new plan will require members to opt in – at which point they will have the opportunity to become affiliated party members for £45.60 and to take part in leadership elections. It is estimated that Labour could lose up to £5 million a year if only 50% of union members decide to become individual Labour members.

Add to this the reduction in corporate funding – the Co-op has already signalled a one-third reduction in its £1m donation – and you have a party which is close to broke.

Being committed to more than one cause is problematic, divided loyalties becomes an issue. Whether union members will shift allegiance from their union to the Labour party remains to be seen. It would have to be seen as seriously optimistic to assume that large numbers will decide to join the party as full members just to have the occasional say in who becomes leader.

Conference call

This leaves the question of what happens to the “block vote” at the party conference. Currently there is a 50-50 split between the constituency parties and the unions. The conference is dominated by three unions: Unite, the largest, Unison and the GMB. Together these unions amount to three-quarters of all the union votes and they tend to dominate proceedings. Miliband has intimated changes “may” be made to the block vote to alter the balance of power. If a 50-50 split is not a balance, then what is? It appears the unions can look forward to an attack on that front as well.

Given his current enthusiasm for individualism over collectivism, it’s fair to assume changes will be made and the influence of the unions at conference will be reduced. McCluskey tweeted that he was “not concerned about the ‘bloc vote’; more concerned about the importance of conference itself”.

What is discussed at conference is one thing, what is decided – and how – is something entirely different.

The other change which must be on the cards is to the composition of Labour’s National Executive Committee. Currently the unions are the largest single group on the NEC and hold 11 of the 32 seats. This is almost double the number held by the constituencies and higher than any other single group. That such an imbalance should continue is unlikely and there will be considerable pressure from Miliband to reduce the union-held seats and to make the committee more representative of the membership as a whole.

If he succeeds with the proposed changes, Ed Miliband will go down in history as the man who snatched Labour away from the unions in the interests of democracy. This in turn should rid him of the “Red Ed” label which came with the union-orchestrated election as leader. But it may prove to be the reform that, while making Labour more electable, does the opposite for Miliband himself by reducing the influence of his strongest support block.