ED MILIBAND took a big gamble when he announced that he would overhaul Labour’s relationship with the trade unions. Already it has cost his party dear.
In an expensive fit of pique, the GMB has decided to cut the amount it gives to Labour from £1.2 million to just £150,000.
If there was ever a public slap on the wrists delivered to a Labour leader by one of the party’s key funders, this was it.
It was a move which underlined the GMB leadership’s fury at the man who they helped rise to the top of the party.
Miliband’s reforms may smack of ingratitude, given that he owes his position as Labour leader to union support.
But leaving that aside, Miliband clearly believes there is a strong argument to “democratise” his party’s links with the unions by suggesting in future that individual union members should specifically “opt-in” to Labour Party membership.
Historically, members of unions linked to Labour have been automatically affiliated to the party.
That rule held sway in the GMB until this week, when the 65-strong executive committee decided it would cut its number of affiliated members from 420,000 to 50,000 – a figure based on the number of members who took part in the leadership election that saw Miliband defeat his brother David.
The road Miliband is now travelling is full of pitfalls, especially if more disenchanted unions decide to follow the GMB’s example and cut funding further – a development which has obvious implications for the party’s ability to fight a general election.
There is also the matter of internal politics. The most radical re-examination of Labour’s relationship with the trade unions since John Smith abolished their block votes has caused concern in some quarters of the party.
Tom Watson, who resigned from the shadow cabinet amidst the Falkirk constituency row which triggered the reforms, has reservations.
Watson, who has a strong association with Unite, wrote a blog this week urging Miliband to tread lightly when dealing with the unions.
He argued that Labour’s relationship with the Labour movement was a defining characteristic of the party.
“If this is the beginning of the end of that historic link, it is a very serious development that threatens a pillar of our democracy that has endured for over 100 years,” wrote Watson.
“…Over the next year we have been asked to consider a change to the constitution of the Labour party, though no detailed proposals have been revealed. I’m not opposed to reform but I will fight very hard to retain the fundamental link between the party and the Labour movement.”
Clearly, Miliband has a battle to win if he is to succeed in having his John Smith moment when he convenes a special conference next year to deal with his plans.