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Ed Miliband and the paradox of party reform

In order to open up their parties, leaders end up on relying on centralising devices.

Ed Miliband's proposal to scrap elections to the shadow cabinet raises some interesting questions about the challenges of opposition and political reform in general - interesting, that is, to people who are interested in that sort if thing. (Civilians with better things to think about on a sunny Friday in June, look away now.)

It is surely the right thing to do. Miliband needs to assert authority, not least because of the inelegant shape of his own electoral mandate. He wasn't the first choice of a majority of Labour MPs or the members, but he is the leader as legitimately installed under the party's (arcane) process. He doesn't need a rolling load of ballots that are irrelevant to non-Labour voters, distract MPs and generate chatter about competing mandates. Hence resistance also to the idea of a directly elected party chair. He is the boss; he should appoint his team.

One of many debilitating features of the Blair-Brown feud and then the abortive coups once Brown was in power was the decline in respect for the office of party leader; old-fashioned discipline. Ed needs to get that back.

Of course, curbing internal democracy never looks great. It is particularly hazardous for Miliband if it starts to feed into a sense of obsessive top-down management. That has dangerous resonance when he needs to rebut a "son of Brown" notion doing the rounds. (The charge being that, like his predecessor, the new leader is too cautious, too focused on tactical positioning and wedded to the techniques of command-and-control.)

It is also worth remembering that the current shadow cabinet mostly came into Labour politics as Neil Kinnock was fighting a battle to make the party electable, which meant very heavy-handed purges from the centre. I don't for a moment think the situation is equivalent, but I do suspect - and shadow cabinet members have told me - that the scars of that era have left the Labour high command wary of devolving too much power to the party periphery.

But there lies a paradox of opposition. The leader has to demonstrate that he is changing the party, which requires signalling openness to new ideas and willingness to promote fresh faces. But inertia is always a powerful force, so the leader must often impose change from the centre. David Cameron struggled with this problem. He recognised the importance of changing the party's image through candidate selection, but his clumsy attempts to impose an "A-List" backfired. Local associations rebelled and the plan had to be watered down. Instead of proving Tory modernity, the A-List approach revealed how resistant the party was to change. Miliband will also have to impose his will on candidate selection - all leaders do - but he'll be reluctant to start a round of local squabbles about golden boys and girls "parachuting" in.

There is trouble brewing on this front. Miliband is attracted to the idea of opening up party structures to draw in involvement from community activists who might be sympathetic to Labour but are not die-hard members. The ultimate goal should be to make the local Labour party a place that people turn to if they have concerns about local issues and want to engage in ground-level politics; not a place that where only very angry people go to rant about the Gaza blockade (I caricature crudely, sorry).

The problem is that any attempt to change the profile of local Labour parties and candidate selection in particular quickly turns into a conversation about building a new membership base, which is - in Labour terms - the age-old aspiration of those who would like to dilute the influence of theunions.

It is a fight worth having. A Labour MP who knows Ed Miliband's thinking on these matters put it to me well the other day when he said: "In opposition, what you do with the party becomes a proxy for what you would do with the public realm." In other words, since you don't have the power to change the country, prove that you mean business by changing the party. And there's no doubt it needs changing - otherwise it wouldn't have been evicted from office.

I suspect that if Cameron had gone about things differently and successfully reformed local Conservative Associations, he would be in a much stronger position now. He should have turned them into vigorous agents of social action - embassies for his "Big Society" instead of places where you have to swear an oath of loathing for the European Union before crossing the threshold. As things stand, Cameron is still caught between the competing needs to placate his right wing and prove to the country that the Tories are a moderate, socially conscientious party. His modernisation project stalled in the centre.

No doubt Miliband has studied that example carefully. At least, I hope he has.