LABOUR leader Ed Miliband will face a pivotal test of his leadership tomorrow when he addresses union leaders, amid warnings that the party could be facing an “Australia-style” meltdown.
Mr Miliband has pledged to push ahead with reforms of the party’s relationship with trade unions after an internal report cleared the Unite union of wrongdoing in a vote-rigging row in the Falkirk constituency.
But the move has been branded a “whitewash” by opponents, who accuse Mr Miliband of backing down to union pressure ahead of a keynote speech to the Trades Union Congress in Bournemouth tomorrow.
Former home secretary David Blunkett said the Opposition leader’s TUC speech marked “a critical juncture in his leadership”.
And Unison’s Dave Prentis urged Mr Miliband to pay heed to events in Australia, where Labour prime minister Kevin Rudd was kicked out of office after months of infighting.
He said: “We have seen what happened in Australia. It will happen to the Labour Party in this country unless it gets its act together.”
Labour had initially called in the police after claims that Unite has sought to “rig” the candidate process in Falkirk by signing up union members without their knowledge.
Unite leader Len McCluskey yesterday rubbished suggestions that the union had a hand in determining the outcome of the internal investigation.
“Obviously, we are delighted that we have been vindicated,” he said. “Right along we said that Unite had done nothing wrong, and I’m pleased now that the Labour Party have actually indicated that no wrongdoing took place.”
Mr Miliband will use tomorrow’s speech to set out his case for reform. He wants union members to be given the option of joining the Labour Party, rather than being automatically affiliated.
He will tell the conference: “We need to build a party truly rooted in the lives of all the working people of Britain once more. That is what my reforms are about.
“It is the right thing to do. We have to change. And I am absolutely determined to make this change happen.”
Mr Blunkett said of tomorrow’s speech: “This is Ed’s chance to present himself as a relevant moderniser – and as a statesman willing to confront even the most difficult issues.”
The internal Labour report into events in Falkirk found no rules had been breached. Labour has stressed that its findings came after “key evidence” was withdrawn.
It was a big climbdown as the party had initially referred to the police claims that Unite – its biggest donor – signed people up as party members without their knowledge to get its candidate picked.
Unite’s preferred candidate, Karie Murphy, and local party chairman Steve Deans have had their suspensions lifted, but Ms Murphy has withdrawn her candidacy.
The central party will impose a shortlist of candidates for the 2015 general election. Unions opposed to the reforms fear the changes will relegate them to “placard-carriers and cheque-writers”.
Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps said: “Ed Miliband has caved in and cleared Unite of any wrongdoing in a whitewash.”
David Maddox: The only real winner from the Falkirk fiasco is David Cameron
JUST under a year ago Ed Miliband made his One Nation speech to the Labour conference in Manchester, which many saw as a defining moment.
Yet tomorrow when he stands on the platform to address the TUC conference, Mr Miliband is faced with the painful reality that not only has he failed to deliver unity across the UK, but he has not even achieved it in his own party.
The Falkirk story has only served to bring to the surface what was already going on behind the scenes. The announcement that Unite was not trying to fix the selection to replace Eric Joyce is certainly not the end of the story.
Many MPs, even ones sponsored by unions, privately do not believe the findings and are convinced that Unite has a case to answer in a great many other seats as well.
But many of the unions are expecting an apology tomorrow. The problem for Mr Miliband is that he is only leader of Labour because the unions overturned the majority will of ordinary party members and MPs against his brother, David.
The issue now is whether to press ahead with reforms which would mean that union members have to specifically request to join Labour.
The reforms were launched in the wake of Falkirk basically on the assumption Unite was guilty, but now Mr Miliband’s very credibility is tied in with them.
The reality is that the fiasco is a victory for David Cameron, and despite the Prime Minister not being in control of his own party, the Falkirk saga could yet deliver him victory in 2015.