Labour leader Ed Miliband hasn’t had his troubles to seek of late. His party’s poll lead has dwindled, a week ago he was on the rack in the House of Commons, ridiculed by David Cameron over his party’s closeness to the Unite trade union – and if that wasn’t bad enough, in the wake of the Falkirk candidate selection fiasco, Blairites and Brownites decided to indulge in score settling, while trade union leaders accused Labour of indulging in anti-union hysteria.
The icing on the cake was the resignation of the party’s general election supremo Tom Watson following his involvement in the Falkirk selection fiasco.
Watson’s exit was inevitable, but his resignation letter sounded as if it had been written by a sulky teenager, going so far as recommending in all seriousness that Labour’s leader should spend time at the Glastonbury Festival.
Ed Miliband needs to do many things to make himself and his party credible, but standing in a field in Somerset isn’t one of them.
The events of last week and the subsequent behaviour of various Labour and trade union figures invite the question of whether Labour is serious about returning to government.
On the one hand, shadow ministers fall over themselves to show how serious they are about not making spending commitments, but on the other, some of the same politicians are just as happy to indulge in destructive bickering which does nothing for Labour’s credibility as a potential party of government.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognise that a divided party is not likely to convince a weary and cynical electorate that it deserves to be returned to power.
This week, Miliband decided – post-Falkirk and nearly three years into his leadership – to turn a growing crisis into an opportunity, by announcing plans to recast Labour’s relationship with the trade union movement and end the automatic affiliation fee of trade union members to the party.
This was billed it as “a defining moment for Labour” and in some quarters as “historic”,”visionary”, “bold” and “brave”.
It certainly achieved one thing: to unite those who only a matter of days ago were happy to trade verbal blows. And it even managed to get former Labour leader Tony Blair and last week’s arch union villain, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, singing from the same unlikely hymn sheet. Sanity, it would appear, has prevailed.
But while recognising the Labour leadership’s need to change the narrative of recent days, questions remain about the wisdom of going down the route that Miliband has outlined.
The Labour leader wants the changes to be adopted voluntarily by union leaders, who are at best lukewarm about his plans.
The fact is, there is little appetite among trade unionists, no matter how sympathetic they are to Labour, to want to “opt-in” to become full Labour Party members. And certainly not in the large numbers envisaged by Miliband.
Then there is the strange logic of recruiting trade unionists to the party while at the same time adopting the United States primary model for the next London mayoral candidate selection, and possibly in constituencies such as Falkirk, which would open selections to non-party members.
And most difficult of all is the question of the likely shortfall in party funding that will occur. It could make it much harder, in the absence of agreement for state funding of political parties, for Labour to fight the Conservatives on a level playing field, and it will cost the party millions at a time when fundraising is difficult enough as it is. And this two years before a general election.
One former Labour Party general secretary, Larry Whitty, has already described the plans Miliband announced on Tuesday as unworkable.
And the GMB general secretary, Paul Kenny, warned yesterday of the consequences and that the party could expect a significant cut in donations.
The lack of detail and general vagueness, and the timetable of the overhaul of Labour’s relationship, give rise to the suspicion that Ed’s plans have been rushed into the public domain to allow him to regain the political initiative.
It’s clear Miliband has staked his political authority and credibility on pushing through changes to Labour’s relationship with the union movement – but he’s not the first Labour leader to do so.
Neil Kinnock was left frustrated by his failure to push through the introduction of one member, one vote in the Labour Party, so the task was left to his successor, John Smith.
Smith gambled his political leadership on the outcome of his efforts to reform the relationship with the country’s trade unions through the party’s adoption of one member, one vote for leadership and parliamentary selections. John faced down his party and union opponents, but it was a high-risk strategy.
History records that, although it was a very close-run thing, Smith won the crucial vote at Labour’s 1993 party conference, at a stroke taking away power from the unions and giving it back to individual party members, in probably the most significant party reform since 1918.
But after the dust settled, there was no lasting acrimony between Smith and the unions, who knew John was far from hostile to the union movement.
Had he lived and won a general election, I have no doubt that Smith would have gone further and introduced state funding of political parties, which would have transformed the political landscape, making it impossible for any party to be over-dependent on any one source of funding. Sadly, any genuine initiative on that front died with him.
Tony Blair, by contrast, staked his reputation on forcing through a symbolic change to Clause IV of the party’s constitution. This week he claimed that he should have done what Miliband has just proposed, which prompts the question why, in 13 years as Labour leader, he did not.
It is certainly the case that after his Clause IV moment, Blair’s keenness to modernise Labour’s relationship with the unions waned. Instead, he used union block votes to force through measures when it suited him and was more interested in courting business donors to commit to party funds or make loans to the party. Subsequent events show the perils of that approach.
Blair also showed a lack of enthusiasm about state funding of politics, leaving it to Jack Straw, who failed to deliver.
But it is partly the failure to update the relationship between the Labour Party and the trade unions and to pursue state funding in the Blair years that Miliband is now having to address.
The experience of some of his predecessors show that changing the relationship between Labour and the unions is never easy.
Ed Miliband may want to reflect upon that in coming days. He may have got out of one hole, making it more difficult for the Conservatives to attack him over Labour’s links to the unions, only to create another rod for his own back.
If Labour under his leadership are to be credible as a potential future government, he needs to get his proposed changes to the trade union relationship right and take his party and the unions with him. The political stakes are high and he can ill afford to fail.#
• Mike Elrick was press officer to Labour leader John Smith