Miliband’s reforms raise more questions than answers

Why “party supporters” should have no say over the Labour leadership.

They may have delivered him the crown but Ed Miliband isn't afraid of picking a fight with the trade unions. Today's Independent reports that the Labour leader is pushing for a cap on party donations of £500, significantly lower than the £50,000 proposed by David Cameron.

As part of Labour's evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the party's general secretary, Ray Collins, has said: "While some argue for a cap of £50,000, a much lower cap of around £500 would be more equitable, democratic and less susceptible to avoidance."

In tandem with this, Miliband is planning to reform Labour's electoral college by giving 25 per cent of the votes to non-party members who register as Labour supporters. This falls short of the one-member, one-vote system advocated by Alan Johnson but would still be the most significant reform since the introduction of the college in 1981. The MPs, affiliated trade unions and party members, who each enjoy a third of the vote, would be left with a quarter each.

But this reform, like the proposed cap on donations, raises more questions than answers. For a start, it creates a disincentive to party membership. One of the few reasons people still join political parties is to have some say (however small) over the leadership. Indeed, more than 30,000 people joined Labour during last summer's contest. The extension of the franchise to non-levy paying "party supporters" would surely prompt some to jump ship. Such a system would also be open to manipulation by political opponents. The supporters of the ill-fated "Conservatives for Balls" movement, for instance, would have leapt at the chance to vote.

The decision to come out against big donations also seems rather counter-intuitive for a party that was recently described by John Prescott as being on the "verge of bankruptcy". It was only big donations from the trade unions which ensured that Labour was able to run anything even resembling a general election campaign.

The brothers were responsible for 60 per cent (£9.8m) of all donations to the party last year, with Unite, Britain's biggest union, accounting for nearly 25 per cent (£3.6m). But combined with increased state funding (favoured by the Lib Dems), the reform could finally break the stranglehold of big money on British politics.

Miliband's stance challenges David Cameron, whose party remains reliant on a few lucrative donors, to take on the most vested interest of all. But on the electoral college, the Labour leader has a lot of convincing to do.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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