Brian Wilson: Handing power back to the people

Former Labour leader John Smith succeeded in winning the fight for one member, one vote. Picture: Getty Images
Former Labour leader John Smith succeeded in winning the fight for one member, one vote. Picture: Getty Images
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Ed Miliband and the unions should follow the example of the late John Smith’s stand on democracy, writes Brian Wilson

Ed Miliband may not be in a mood to count himself lucky about very much at present. However, a moment’s reflection will detect a silver lining to the Falkirk cloud.

Quite simply, this was a car crash waiting to happen. And the fact that it has done so now, two years before a general election, gives Labour an opportunity to address the issues raised as Miliband set out to do yesterday.

That should be seen as a lucky break. It could have been a month prior to that election. Thanks to the crude indefensibility of the Falkirk operation, the opportunity now exists to achieve something far more radical and interesting than would otherwise have been feasible.

However arcane the details, the basic problem is straightforward. The electorate will not return a Labour government which is, or is thought to be, unduly beholden to a clutch of trade union barons and fixers. It is difficult to imagine rational grounds for dissenting from that statement.

This is very different from saying that Labour should distance itself from trade unions or that the electorate will punish it for standing up for historic and current links with organised labour. Quite the contrary actually. Properly conducted, that relationship remains a source of pride and strength.

The challenge is how to get that structure right. Any reasonable person can accept union funding of Labour as necessary to ensure a reasonably fair electoral fight. The problem lies in vulnerability to the charge that money buys undue influence. While the hypocrisy of those who lead that charge may be self-evident, that does not relieve Labour of the need to put itself beyond reproach.

A particular problem for Ed Miliband is that the Falkirk shenanigans remind people that he would not be in his present position if it had been left to party members, or parliamentarians or, one suspects, the massed ranks of trade union levy-payers. The fact that the guy who must now take on the barons and fixers is himself a product of their influence is not a great starting point.

But we are where we are. It is idle to pretend that there are not substantial doubts in the electorate’s mind about Miliband as potential prime minister. He is an intelligent man who reads the polling and at some point will have to form his own judgment of where it pointing. Right now, the chance exists not only to perform a historic service to his party by getting this right, but also to shape more positive perceptions of himself. He won’t get a better platform.

Twenty-odd years ago, the late John Smith pinned his colours to the mast of One Member, One Vote in order to end the embarrassing farce of General Secretaries wielding millions of votes at party conferences, in the days when unions had millions of members. With great difficulty, he got this reform through but at the price of compromises which are still with us.

Public interest in all of this went into abeyance during the Blair years because nobody bothered to accuse him of being in the pocket of the unions – least of all the unions themselves. It is only the circumstances of Miliband’s election which breathed life into the old bogey while Falkirk has given it arms and legs.

So what are the unions entitled to ask from Labour in return for their financial support? For assistance in answering that question, it is worth turning to a very recent report from the London School of Economics entitled Labour’s Social Policy: Spending and Outcomes 1997-2010. This was a major piece of academic research which tracked the impact of the Blair-Brown years.

The conclusions do not surprise me because I have always believed that, on the whole, these were pretty good Labour governments. But few people now bother to make that case. As the report’s co-ordinator, Professor Ruth Lupton, states: “There is a myth that Labour spent a lot and achieved nothing.” Its conclusions tell a very different story. For starters, there was “nothing exceptional” about spending levels up to the crash in 2008 while “most of the extra spending went on improving services – schools, hospitals, 48,000 extra teachers, 90 per cent of social housing stock brought up to standard… more doctors and nurses… a striking narrowing of inequalities… nearly all of the extra cash Labour spent on benefits went on children and pensioners…” and so on. Some things didn’t work but overall, it is a hugely positive – indeed, inspiring – report.

And that, bluntly, is what the trade unions should be looking for in their relationship with Labour – not back-room influence but upfront support for what can be delivered.

Not in the interests of the fixers but of working people and their families, just like it says on the membership card. Not power-broking but shared pride in achievements.

And if that is not enough for them, then they have the perfect right to take their money elsewhere. But where? There is no other potential party of government which is going to get a report card like that – and indeed, many of the advances that were made during these years are now being eroded. So which matters more to Len McCluskey and Tom Watson – fixing candidate selections or returning Labour governments?

As he implied yesterday, candidate selections could be the big reform that Miliband goes for because they are indeed a rotten burgh of British politics, and not just for Labour. Around two-thirds of constituencies never or rarely change hands –so the selection process, often involving tiny numbers of people, pretty much dictates who the MP is going to be, with the electorate as rubber-stamp.

Unite justifies its activities on the basis that “working-class” candidates are being squeezed out. But, hang on. The intended beneficiary in Falkirk was not exactly a horny-handed daughter of toil – she was Watson’s office manager. It seems unlikely that the good people of Falkirk would have sought her out if Unite had not tried to put her in.

In truth, the influence of power-brokers over candidate selections has led to politics being dominated increasingly by people who have done nothing else in their lives. Left to their own devices, party members or the wider electorate would rarely opt for the production line of special advisers and apparatchiks who are routinely shoe-horned into safe seats by all parties.

The more I look at it, the more I fancy open primaries as an alternative. People from diverse backgrounds but lacking an organisational base could credibly put themselves forward. Thousands of voters, rather than tens, could be involved in the process. Individual union members would be more enfranchised than they are at present.

Much of what Ed Miliband said yesterday pointed in that direction. That’s a start – and where better for Labour to put it to the test than in Falkirk itself?