As a Lib Dem, I obviously write as neither a Labour party member nor supporter, but I was genuinely stirred by Ed Miliband’s speech at the St Bride Foundation yesterday. It was bold, gutsy and liberal minded – qualities the Labour leader’s critics often accuse him of lacking. The announcement that Ed will push forward plans to change the current arrangements in which all union members across the country are automatically affiliated with the Labour party, to one in which union members will have to voluntarily opt in to Labour affiliation, was brave to say the least. It potentially throws all of Labour’s current funding arrangements up in the air. It contains within it the possibility of huge upsides as well; Labour could very quickly become a mass membership party again, the only one in Great Britain. It’s been described as a gamble elsewhere, and I’d concur with that.
The problem Ed has now is following through on those words. It’s going to be a tough road ahead if he wants to fundamentally change the Labour party’s link to the unions, and if he doesn’t succeed in completing this task prior to the 2015 general election it will have grave implications for Labour’s chances in that poll – and thus for Ed’s leadership itself.
There are two roads open to Ed if he wants to achieve this before 2015. One is through legislation. Nick Clegg has offered to help enshrine the new rules into law, but Labour appears to have rejected this olive branch out of hand. It is understandable that fundamentally changing the way the Labour party funds itself through the largesse of the Lib Dem leader, the Labour party’s very own Goldstein figure, would seem too big a risk for Miliband. Particularly at a time when he’s taking enough risks already, thank you very much. But it would immediately solve all of his problems around the issue. Instead, he seems determined to go down the other avenue, working with the unions to get all this done in a conciliatory fashion. Len McCluskey has been surprisingly supportive thus far, but that could change once he sees more of the proposals and takes a dislike to any part of them (and it is practically inconceivable that he won’t). Most of the other union heads have come out firmly against the idea.
The inherent risk for Ed is that this bargain is tougher to seal than it looks from where he’s standing now, and that Labour thus go into April 2015 without anything substantial having been done on the opt in/opt out dilemma. Ed will then look weaker for having made the St Bride’s speech. It will appear to most people outside of the Labour party that the unions have the power over whether the unions control the Labour party or not. That could be fatally used by the other parties during the general election short campaign.
I for one hope that Ed succeeds in his mission. It would be good for democracy if nothing else. But I hope he’s taken decent stock of just how tricky making these courageous proposals a reality may turn out to be.