When I joined John Smith’s office as a young speechwriter in 1993 he was at the beginning of a battle to introduce the One Member One Vote system for Labour Party Parliamentary selections. It seems strange to say so today but back then those reforms were highly controversial and fiercely resisted by a number of trade unions, including the TGWU and the GMB, who were at that time Labour’s largest two affiliates.
The campaign to oppose the One Member One Vote Changes was called “Save the Link”, implying that if One Member One Vote for selections was approved it would be the end of the link between Labour and the Trade Unions. No one was proposing the end of the link but that is how it was characterised at the time. Instead what was being proposed was an obvious democratic reform in how Labour candidates should be selected.
John Smith had to fight very hard for his changes. They were fiercely resisted by some in the unions and by indeed by some Labour Party members. Not all his Shadow Cabinet would speak up for them. Party headquarters was at best mixed in its attitude towards them. At times it looked like he would never get them through. But he fought for them with great courage and tenacity and won the day by the narrowest of margins. Had he failed it would have been the end of his leadership.
John Smith passed away just seven months after his triumph at the 1993 conference and a year later, Labour’s new leader Tony Blair began another round of change, this time to Clause IV, the statement of aims and values on every membership card. Blair understood the poetic significance of the old Clause IV but wanted a change which would symbolise Labour’s move in a new direction and be the clearest possible indication that his modernisation project was serious. At a more mundane level he also wanted a statement of aims and values that we could argue we would try to achieve in Government rather than one which, although held in affection by many members, no one seriously expected us to implement.
Again the changes were fiercely resisted. Again some argued they would mean the end of what Labour stood for. In the period after announcing the changes opposition grew. Constituency after constituency passed resolutions arguing for the retention of the old Clause IV. But gradually things began to change. Labour Party members proved more enthusiastic about Blair’s proposed changes change than many who said they spoke for them.
The decisive moment came at the Scottish Labour conference in Inverness (lest everyone assume after looking at events in Falkirk that Labour in Scotland is devoid of modernity). There after a campaign in Scottish constituencies change was endorsed emphatically. Once the Scottish Conference had voted in favour the battle was effectively won.
Tony Blair said this week that the change Ed Miliband proposed was something he should have done, but didn’t. And there is a lesson in this for Party reform. Once in Government following the 1997 election Labour did far too little party reform. The pressures of running the country took over and that meant that over time our politics and practices did not change as they should.
Today’s circumstances are not quite the same for Ed Miliband as they were for Smith and Blair. The need for his announcement arose out of events in Falkirk and elsewhere. He has responded with real and meaningful change. It may not be as easy to explain political funds, opt ins and opt outs as it was to talk about a simple concept like One Member One Vote or a new Clause IV but that should not diminish the potential significance of what has been announced. This is not some cosmetic flim flam but would be a real and lasting change in how the relationship between Labour and the unions will work.
The key part of Ed Miliband’s speech is this passage:
“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.
Individual Trade Union members should choose to join Labour through the affiliation fee, not be automatically affiliated.
In the twenty-first century, it just doesn’t make sense for anyone to be affiliated to a political party unless they have chosen to do so.”
Embarking on this change carries risk, as does most meaningful change. It may hurt the Labour Party financially, at least in the short term, but can a political party really rely on the inertia of an opt out system for a large proportion of its funding?
Ray Collins, the former Labour Party general Secretary has been asked to oversee the process. Comment that he is unqualified to do so because he used to work for Unite is wrong. Ray Collins will not be a poodle for the general secretaries in this.
He will have to work through some difficult issues. If union members join individually in this way inevitably this raises questions about how the Labour Conference and the National Policy Forum are run. Are these areas to be changed too?
In an era when union members are joining individually through payment of the political levy, what will be the consequences for the election of a future party leader where, at present, there is a specific union section in the electoral college?
The process outlined by Ed Miliband process will probably not end with affiliation and selections.
Based on past experience two things are important after Ed’s speech.The first is that he gets support for the path he has set out. The second is momentum. If momentum is lost those who want to pick away at his changes or say they are unworkable will try to ensure they unravel.
Reform in the Labour Party should be ongoing and in our DNA, not episodic and riddled with accusations of betraying our history. It ought to be possible to talk these issues through without the usual vilification and denunciation. No disservice to the past is done by making sure that Labour adapts for the future. Ed Miliband has taken a bold step. He deserves support for it.