The Trade Unions Must Champion A Change Agenda Within Labour

08/08/2011 14:00 BST | Updated 07/10/2011 10:12 BST

Ed Miliband is such a tease. One day he is pushing the unions away, the next he is cuddling-up to them and holding them close.

This somewhat erratic display highlights the contradiction he finds himself trapped in, on the one hand he is desperate to free himself of the 'Red Ed' tag, while on the other hand he was elected with strong support from trade unionists with a mandate to change direction from the hostility shown to the unions by previous leaderships, especially more recent ones.

In part, this explains his attitude as does the fact that in reality there is little support amoung the Labour membership for a complete divorce from the trade unions. It is my reading that support for the Labour-Union link travels across the ideological spectrum as it is seen as a key part of our heritage and also a key part of what makes Labour distinctive as a political Party. However, many do want the relationship to change, and so, despite being a passionate support of the trade unions, do I.

It is time for the unions to make themselves the champions of a change agenda - rather than complacent defenders of the status quo. The status quo is not good for the unions. For example, the electoral college system of electing the Labour leader enshrines their subordinate position:

The vote of one MP is worth the votes of nearly 608 party members and 12,915 affiliated members.

The vote of one party member is worth the votes of 21 affiliated members.

It is high-time the unions realised this and championed one member, one equal vote in internal Labour Party elections. Similarly, how is it a good thing that trade unionists are kept at a arms length from their local Constituency Labour Party? It, of course isnt, so some of the current proposals in terms of allowing local parties to develop links with these people, should be welcomed not scorned by the unions. In fact, it is my submission that all those who pay the political levy are automatically entitled to membership of the Labour Party. Giving them this would strengthen the link between Labour and one of its core constituencies immeasurably.

When it comes to policy making, the unions wrongly rely on the proportion of votes they have at a much weakened conference. If all levy-paying trade unionists were Labour members and Labour members had much greater say over policy matters through inputting into a Party conference with sovereign, policy making powers, their influence would be much greater but also democratically legitimate.So, why not trade their vote-share for more powers for conference and full Labour membership for all their members?

The truth is that the way the unions address themselves to Labour is negative and defensive. Rather than seize the agenda of change they are content to defend a barely adequate status quo. However, if they continue to do that they may well find the leadership is successful in diminishing their influence still further and that would be bad for them and ultimately, bad for Labour too.