THE BLOG
08/07/2013 11:49 BST | Updated 07/09/2013 06:12 BST

Ed Miliband's Challenge

The task Miliband begins tomorrow is not an easy one and the challenge with which he has been presented is not simply one union's making. The undemocratic electoral college which picks Labour's London mayoral candidate has its origins in New Labour's bid to prevent Ken Livingstone being fairly chosen as the party's candidate.

Less than a year into his leadership, Ed Miliband made clear his aversion to 'some Cameron-type strategy of superficial repositioning'. It was, he wrote, 'why I have resisted those who say I must find my version of hug a hoodie - or a husky.'

While the Labour leader would have rejected the notion that Tony Blair's abandonment of the old clause IV in 1995 was in any way superficial, he has been equally averse to the notion that he needs a clause IV-type moment, taking on some of the powerful forces in his own party or slaughtering one of his sacred cows.

But whether wanted or not, Miliband now finds himself faced with such a moment. The row over the selection of Labour's parliamentary candidate for Falkirk has developed into a much bigger question over the role of the unions in the party.

While this may not be a fight he would have chosen, it is one the Labour leader can win. Over the past two years, he has taken on a number of powerful vested interested and emerged politically stronger and more respected for it. Moreover, this is not a fight about whether Labour retains its historic link with the unions, instead it is about how the link can be reformed and strengthened. Labour is immeasurably stronger because of the relationship it has with the unions: no other centre-left party in the world has unions formally affiliated to it. Not only have the unions historically ensured that the voices of some of the most marginalised in society are heard in the corridors of power, there is also strong international evidence to suggest that trade union activity plays a wider part in maintaining the health of democracy: it is, for instance, closely linked to ensuring higher voter turnout, particularly among working-class voters who might otherwise not go to the polls. That is why, as Progress argued in March and Miliband reiterated yesterday, Labour's aim must be to 'mend, not end' the union link.

Nor is this a battle between all trade unions and the Labour leader; rather it is the inevitable result of the emergence of a super-union which is attempting to operate in a party structure designed for an age when there were more, but smaller unions.

However we should not underestimate the scale of the challenge confronting Miliband as he weighs his options before tomorrow's speech. For that reason, he deserves and needs the space and time to develop proposals which can win the support of members across the party and he should have the right to put his eventual proposals - of which tomorrow may only be a part - to them directly as Blair did with his reform of clause IV.

A healthy relationship relies on a healthy and strong trade union movement. That health and strength is not, however, measured in industrial militancy or overblown rhetoric. The key measure is the number of people who choose to join a union. On this score, the unions have their work cut out: today, barely one in four of those employed are in a union, a figure which falls to just 14 per cent in the private sector. There is nothing inevitable about this trend: where unions feel relevant to those whom they seek to represent, they prosper - just look at the success of Usdaw in growing its membership among private sector shopworkers.

A healthy relationship also relies on openness, transparency and democracy. These should be the principles which inform Miliband's thinking. As Progress has argued before, all those who join an affiliated trade union, and indicate their support for Labour, should automatically become individual party members, with all the rights such membership bestows. This would help to make the relationship between individual trade unionists and the Labour party a more meaningful one, making real the rhetorical link with nurses, teaching assistants, dinner ladies and engineers which we so regularly talk about.

It would also strengthen the Labour party in another way. Turnout in the affiliated section of the electoral college was poor in the 2010 leadership election (less than nine per cent as against 72 per cent among constituency party members). But those who did tick the box to say they supported Labour and cast their ballot remain a great source of untapped strength for the party. If the 203,759 people who voted in the leadership election and ticked the box to say they supported Labour were treated as party members, it would double the size of the party overnight.

Such a change would inevitably lead to further changes. The electoral colleges which elect the Labour leader and choose the party's mayoral candidate in London should be replaced by one member one vote to reflect the new relationship between the party and its affiliates. Unions would, of course, remain free to endorse and campaign for whomever they choose, but the current system - under which candidates do not have the ability to canvass or communicate with individual union members - is unsustainable and, at a minimum, must be reformed.

In parliamentary selections, this new relationship with members of the affiliates would serve to the strengthen the role of individual trade union members, but union branches should retain their right to nominate candidates as, of course, would local party branches. Miliband should also consider going further, allowing local parties to vote before they begin a parliamentary selection on whether or not they wish to open the process up to include Labour supporters in the constituency. Participation in such primaries, which have long been advocated by Tessa Jowell and others, would only be open to those who tick a box affirming that they support the aims and values of the Labour party. As in the primary by which the French socialists picked their presidential candidate in 2011, party members would retain control of the shortlist, and anyone winning a union or branch nomination should be shortlisted. Beyond parliamentary selections, mayoral selections are an obvious area for primaries to be experimented with.

Finally, Miliband should consider the workings of the party's decision-making bodies. Currently, the unions and constituency parties each hold 50 per cent of the votes at party conference. This should be reformed so that the union and CLP shares falls to one-third each, with the National Policy Forum, councillors or the parliamentary party having the remaining third. On Labour's National Executive Committee, Miliband should take up the proposal made by the trade unions through the Trade Union and Labour party Liasion Organisation's submission to the Refounding Labour party reform consultation to give 'equal weight to constituencies, trade unions and other stakeholders'. With parliamentarians; members; and unions and affiliates each having equal representation on the NEC, there would also be an opportunity to allow members in each region to elect their own representative, with members in Scotland and Wales doing likewise. At the same time, the anomaly of the two-college electoral system, by which Labour in London chooses its mayoral candidate and by which John Prescott received the votes of nearly two-thirds of party members but still lost his bid to become treasurer of the party in 2010, should be ended with this post picked by one member one vote.

The task Miliband begins tomorrow is not an easy one and the challenge with which he has been presented is not simply one union's making. The undemocratic electoral college which picks Labour's London mayoral candidate has its origins in New Labour's bid to prevent Ken Livingstone being fairly chosen as the party's candidate. Despite initial promises of doing things differently, New Labour too often fell into the trap of attempting to fix votes and selections rather than putting its case to party members and attempting to win it. Indeed, Miliband might well be one of the few figures in the party who can credibly tackle a problem that all sections and wings of the party can be said to have contributed to at different points in the recent past. As Tony Blair's successor as MP for Sedgefield, Phil Wilson, once suggested: 'party reform ended on 2 May 1997'. It is time to right that wrong.