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Ed Miliband: Behind the Party Reform, a Quiet Populism

05/03/2014 16:38 GMT | Updated 05/05/2014 10:59 BST

On Saturday 1 March the Labour Party voted to fundamentally reform its relationship to the trade unions, and the way it elects its leader. It is being compared in importance to Tony Blair's abolition of Clause IV in 1995, which abandoned the party's long-held, deep-seated, and utterly ignored commitment to full-scale nationalisation. Blair's reform had a massive effect on the party, helping to catapult it back into power after 18 years in divided opposition. Ever since, it has been a leitmotif for modernisation, leading to Miliband's success in winning union, affiliate and party support for his reforms by a landslide 85%. What started out as a bust-up over Unite's alleged packing of the Falkirk constituency with union members for the selection of the party's candidate has turned into a personal triumph for Miliband. It has arguably cast him into the Blair mould of the visionary leader, insightful and right before his time. By carrying his party with him Miliband has completed the historic task begun by Blair in 1995. In many ways, the two moments are comparable, but in some ways not. In fact, their dissimilarities are clues to their real function.

Blair's Clause IV reform was significant, but ultimately symbolic. Not even the Attlee government of 1945 nationalised on the Soviet scale of the spirit of Clause IV. The real significance of its abolition was not what it told us about Labour's commanding heights, but what it told us about the commander. The risk he took in taking on the redundant but near-sacred text gave him an exalted status in relation to his party; in relation to the public, and, with hindsight, to Labour history and Labour's future.

The level of risk involved in Miliband's reforms was higher than that which Blair faced. The practical consequences could have been immediate. Delegates speaking against the motion warned of the potentially catastrophic consequences to Labour's finances, long term loosening (if not severing)_ of the union relationship, and through a kind of atomisation of the party 'will' in the name of democracy - the loss of the truly collective identity and endeavour of the party These things may come to pass, although the overwhelming backing of the trade unions for the reform suggests that they won't. However, as with Clause IV, this whole affair is less about the party than about Ed Miliband and his leadership. The 'Clause IV moment' was about the creation of Blair's prime ministerial 'character': a man who courageously brought the crazier elements of the party to heel, and prepared it for government. Only time will tell if Miliband's achievement has served a similar purpose.

He entered the conference hall to music, clips of the party's history, and footage of his previously well received conference speeches. He remained on the stage throughout the two hours of debate. The overwhelming majority of speakers were in favour, not only of the proposals but of the proposer. They regularly named and congratulated their listening leader, celebrating his insightfulness as he listened intently. His status was enhanced by his listening respectfully to his few critics; the one or two admonitions. Both rhetorically and visually this was Miliband's moment, the conference a demonstration of his leadership.

In his opening and closing remarks Miliband used the populist language of the rally leader, but in his own restrained and calm manner His desired (rather than actual) audience/constituency was not the squeezed middle, the teachers and social workers, or the chattering classes who are often addressed through such gatherings. He sought instead to reach the legions of disenfranchised or self-disenfranchised low paid workers. The ambulance drivers, women, and care workers. The disabled, families in poverty, the unemployed and underemployed, and, as Miliband told his audience, a non-voting Mum called Tracy. The populist tone also informed his depiction of his adversaries; the Tories were hearltless, sexist, Eton and Harrow bullies, while the the Lib Dems were simply pathetic. The speech teemed with references to himself and his envisioned future the guiding virtue of which was justice. Miliband's speech was personalised too in its pedagogical telling of home truths to the party: that if it did not change, both it and politics itself would become 'an empty stadium'. He also reminded his audience that his decision in response to the Falkirk scandal was the origin of the reforms and therefore, implicitly, the conference itself the realisation of that personal choice. And, in a moment of classic populist rhetoric, he urged his party to become (or become again) a 'movement'. His proposed relationship to this movement was made clear in the line: 'If I am elected Prime Minister, I want to change this country, but I can only do it with a movement behind me'.

Miliband's approach to the special conference of 1 March could cast him as the hero of the party, the leader who unleashed the popular voices of disillusioned and excluded Britain. In just over a year we shall find out if it worked.