Ed Miliband yesterday said he wants to “mend not end” Labour’s relationship with the trade unions as he promised party reforms to prevent a repeat of a highly-damaging row over candidate selection in a key Scottish seat.
The Labour leader, who is engaged in a bitter dispute with the leader of the party’s biggest union donor over claims it sought to rig a ballot, said he wanted to increase the involvement of individual members.
The move came as deputy leader Harriet Harman revealed the party is to impose a spending cap on selection campaigns as part of a “significant change” in its relations with trade unions.
However, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey urged the party leadership to “step back from the brink of a ruinous division” and stop “playing into the hands” of the Tories.
Mr McCluskey again rejected any suggestions of criminal wrong-doing by Unite after Labour called in the police to investigate alleged irregularities in the Falkirk selection.
The case centres on alleged attempts to fill the Falkirk party with Unite members to ensure the success of the union’s
favoured candidate – with some apparently signed up for Labour membership without their knowledge.
Mr McCluskey said he would not apologise for efforts to “reclaim Labour” which, he said, was “increasingly the preserve of an out-of-touch elite – Oxbridge-educated special advisers who glide from university to think-tank to the green benches without ever sniffing the air of the real world”.
Mr Miliband insisted events in Falkirk “have betrayed the values of our party” and confirmed the public’s suspicions that politicians were “in it for themselves”.
Reforms to be announced soon would ensure future selections “are always fair, open and transparent”, he said, making sure the Falkirk episode “never happens again” and making Labour “more worthy of your trust”.
Ms Harman said the move to cap spending would strip the need for would-be MPs or senior party figures to rely on union funding or personal wealth as the party sought to deal with the damaging row sparked by claims of criminal activity in Falkirk.
“Things like a cap on spending will be a significant change for the right reasons,” she said. “It is very important that people cannot be ruled out of a contest because they can’t get the backing of a union or have their own independent funds.”
Ms Harman said that the particular issue in Falkirk – related to a now-axed scheme allowing unions to pay party membership fees of people it recruited for an initial period – was an isolated case and was now “dealt with”.
However, she said that there is also “a number of constituencies where for different reasons issues are being looked into”.
Former Labour party chairman Lord John Reid jumped to Mr Miliband’s defence, insisting that the row is about more than party organisation.
“It is a challenge between those – like Len McCluskey – who want to take Labour back to the 70s and 80s, where it represents one sectional interest, it becomes the weak echo of every industrial demand or the few trade union bosses, and Ed Miliband and the rest of the Labour Party who want us to move forward to reach out across sectional interest to every part of the country, across class, across geography,” said Lord Reid.
“And if that is the debate, I know what side I’m on and it’s the side of Ed Miliband.”