Is Britain's Labour party shedding its labor ties?

Party leader Ed Miliband today proposed altering Labour's relationship with its old allies.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters
Ed Miliband, leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, gestures during a speech in the City of London today. Mr. Miliband laid out his plans for changing Labour's relationship with its traditional allies: Britain's trade unions.

Ed Miliband, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, unveiled plans Tuesday to radically recast the relationship between his party and the labor union movement from which it emerged more than 100 years ago – as the would-be prime minister looked to transform a political crisis into a political opportunity.

Prompted by a controversy over allegations that Britain's largest union, Unite, hijacked the selection of a Labour candidate to contest a parliamentary seat in the Scottish town of Falkirk, Mr. Miliband proposed reshaping the Labour-union relationship, in part by scrapping an automatic fee that union members pay to Labour.

“In the 21st century, it just doesn't make sense for anyone to be affiliated to a political party unless they have chosen to do so,” said Miliband, who described events in Falkirk as “the death throes of the old politics.” 

The speech came fraught with risks – including the prospects of a bitter party civil war with repercussions for Miliband’s leadership and of the party being financially crippled if unions chose to de-affiliate from it. 

At the same time, if Miliband can bring the plans to fruition and avoid a damaging split, then it could be an ideal riposte to often expressed doubts about his capacity for leadership.

Political crisis

Miliband's speech was spurred by an internal Labour Party report, which alleged that members of Unite were being signed up to the local party in Falkirk without their knowledge in an attempt to rig the contest to select a Labour candidate there for the 2015 election. Unite is alleged to have paid the membership fees of those extra members who were signed up to the Falkirk Labour Party, rather than the individuals being required to sign direct debits in order to ensure they had consciously joined.

Around 100 members in Falkirk were unknowingly recruited by the union and reported to have been asked to allow others to cast votes on their behalf during the selection process – which could have allowed the union to rig the ballot in favor of its own preferred candidate.

Labour has handed over details of the allegations to police. The union rejects the allegations of ballot rigging and says the claims are an attempt to smear its reputation.

The scandal has drawn accusations from the Conservative Party that Labour is in the pockets of unions, who wield 50 percent of votes at Labour annual conferences and whose support was crucial to Miliband's capturing of the Labour party leadership in 2010 when his closest rival was his brother, David.

Further, many unions with links to Labour currently choose how many of their members – who automatically pay a "political levy" as part of their union subscription – are affiliated with the party.

Miliband wants to create a situation in which those union members are asked if they want to consciously and deliberately pay that levy to the Labour Party.

He believes this will create a healthy distance between the unions and the party and that the current relationship is a disincentive to people becoming engaged in politics. Although the move threatens to cost Labour millions of pounds in donations, Miliband said it could also swell party membership from 200,000 to "a far higher number."

The Miliband proposal was accompanied by other announcements that the party would also use US-style primaries to select candidates for future contests, including London’s 2016 mayoral election, and seek to impose a limit on parliamentarians' earnings from second jobs to mitigate the risk of undue influence.

However, it was the details on the union link that made the headlines – despite polling suggesting a degree of ambivalence among the general public about the issue.

Figures by the YouGov polling company found that 29 percent of people think that Miliband has been too close to the Unions, 13 percent thought he is too distant, and 22 percent said his distance is about right. Some 36 percent said they don’t know.

Labour without labor?

According to Mark Ferguson, the editor of a party grass-roots website called Labour List, rank-and-file activists are pensive about the changes, which he said have the potential to significantly restrict the party’s ability to campaign in a general election – and risk its historical link with trade unions.

“If you completely lose the union link then it could be very hard to call yourself the Labour Party, the party of organized labor,” says Mr. Ferguson.

“My concern is we would end up with a European Social Democratic Party which may well adopt many of the same values, but would not have the same level of concern for issues such as workers rights and low pay, and perhaps become more paternalistic.”

Ferguson, who said that he, like many other members, considered himself to be a socialist, added that he did not believe the party itself had been socialist in the first place.

“What it has really been is ‘workerist,’ standing for the rights of workers and giving a voice to working people. In the past the party has not always done that, and Ed Miliband might argue that this is about putting the party back in the hands of ordinary working people.”

Early response

There were some positive signs for the Labour leader in the early reaction to his speech, however.

Miliband’s plans were publicly backed by Tony Blair, the former prime minister whose emphasis on staking out the center ground retains a strong following on the right of the party. He described Miliband’s stance as an act of leadership. 

On the other end of the Labour spectrum, Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite who has been heated in his defense of its actions in Falkirk, described the speech as “a bold and brave” one. He added that he wanted to see the details of the proposals, despite suggesting in an article for the Guardian newspaper on Tuesday morning that he was opposed to any attempt to introduce an opt-in affiliation system.

But Mr. McCluskey, who has been a lightning rod for criticism from Labour members of Parliament and activists seeking to loosen the party's ties to unions, told the BBC in the wake of the speech: "He seemed to be saying that he wanted to see tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of ordinary trade unionists actively playing an active role within the Labour Party. That's something I very much welcome.”

In further comments, he also described Mr. Blair's assessment of the speech as an "act of leadership" and as "spot on," saying: "It's not often I agree with Tony Blair, but I think he might be absolutely correct."

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