Ed Miliband's Reforms Could Hand More Power To Unions, Warns Ex-Party Boss

Labour party leader Ed Miliband speaks during a debate on Syria in the House of Commons, central London.
Labour party leader Ed Miliband speaks during a debate on Syria in the House of Commons, central London.

Ed Miliband's plans to reform Labour's financial links with the unions could actually increase power they have over the party, a former Labour Party general secretary has said.

Miliband will face tough questioning from delegates at the TUC Congress in Bournemouth today after delivering a crucial speech. He is expected to be asked about his plans for union members to opt in to Labour affiliation rather than being automatically affiliated.

The Labour leader will stress that the current system of affiliation for trade unionists "must change" so that they have a real choice as individuals about being part of the party.

The move comes after a sustained attack by David Cameron and the Conservatives on the power the union leaders are said to wield over Labour policy.

But speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, Peter Watt, who ran the Labour Party between 2006 and 2007, said while Miliband was was "absolutely right" in the long term he could be handing greater influence to union leaders in the short term.

Watt said under the present system of affiliation the party automatically received three pounds per affiliated member - but this would end under Miliband's new system.

"What the Labour Party will hope to rely on is the largesse of trade union general secretaries prepared to write big cheques come the general election," he said. "And they won’t do it without getting something in return."

"The key question for Ed and for people in Bournemouth today is the short-term impact - whether some knee-jerky, ill thought-through proposals in the Labour Party are so catastrophic short term that that actually out-does the long-term good," he said.

"It is worth remembering just how fragile the Labour Party's finances are. It has very little assets and no cash to speak of in the bank. It has historically borrowed, and borrowed more than it should have done. That is one of the risks it faces - its finances are so fragile.

"But it has been pretty lucky because it has had some pretty stable income from membership, from affiliation fees and, at the moment, from the taxpayer.

"But what has happened, of course, is that the 25% of income coming from the unions has effectively been put at risk in the short term."

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