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Miliband Is Right to Be Proud of Labour's Trade Union Links and Should Never Apologise for Them

11/07/2013 13:02 BST | Updated 09/09/2013 10:12 BST
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What began as a small tremor in Falkirk has cause a political earthquake and the the toughest test to date for Ed Miliband's leadership. Over the last few weeks matters have escalated, and what began as a local constituency dispute has become a police matter, leading Ed to propose the biggest reform to the party's relationship with the unions for a generation.

The narrative of those who have lead the calls for change is that Len McClusky won the Labour leadership for Ed, and in exchange he is using his influence to rig candidate selections and shape policies. We are forever being warned about 'lurches to the left' and the dark days of the 1980s as part of a mantra which is promoted by Tory commentators and a handful of Labour ones too.

The problem with this popular and well-worn narrative is that it's not grounded in anything resembling reality. What are these supposedly McClusky approved policies? Do they mean the party's commitment to matching the Coalition government's spending plans? Do they mean the abstention on workfare and wavering on whether to abolish the bedroom tax? Or do they mean Miliband's refusal to back the public sector strikes and support for public sector pay freezes? If McClusky really is in a position to set Labour Party policy then at best he's an underachiever.

We already know that Len regards members of the Labour front bench as 'horsemen of austerity' and has called for leading shadow cabinet members to be sacked, and yet none of them have been moved. Whatever one thinks of his politics they would have to say that his influence over the party leadership is actually pretty negligible.

Of course union money is very important to the party, at present it provides almost two thirds of all funding, although that will fall under Ed's new proposals. However, the link to the unions isn't just important financially, but also morally and politically. The unions are among the few institutions that allow large numbers of working people to engage in politics, and they should continue to be supported on that basis. Their role inside the workplace is vital in curbing the excesses of bad employers, and they have been at the forefront of almost every campaign for the working rights that we take for granted today.

One of the great urban myths of modern British politics is that it was a big union 'block vote' that won the leadership for Ed. It wasn't. What happened was that tens of thousands of individual members and voted as individuals and on balance they preferred to have Ed as leader. Their votes were counted individually and distributed accordingly. Surely if there is a democratic deficit in the system then it comes from the fact that each Labour MP has the same portion of the vote as thousands of members and supporters?

Ed is right is that the trade union relationship clearly needs to be renewed. At present only 35-40% of Unite members vote Labour, and there's little evidence that the figure is any higher for the other main unions. Trade union participation in the Labour leadership election in 2010 was only 9%, less than half of what it was in 1994, by any standard that's not good enough.

A central component of renewal has to be re-engaging with them and making them feel valued, and that will be even more important under the new affiliation proposals. The unions provide a real link to working people, albeit a diminished one, and without them the party runs the risk of becoming like any other that's dependent on big donors and corporate money. The fall in union participation has coincided with the decline of party membership, which since 1997 has fallen from 400,000 to around half of that.

I agree with the principle of opting-in to party affiliation, but there will be a number of ramifications to the change. What is clear is that in order to be sustainable the party's wider political and financial strategy has to be based on a genuine expansion of membership and affiliates. Miliband is right to challege the government to support a cap of £5000 on donations, and if he sticks to it then he could change politics for the better. Labour's relationship with big donors hasn't always been comfortable, as the Eccleston saga showed, and if the party becomes more dependent on the same big money and vested interests as the Conservatives then the risk is that it will only come to resemble them even more.