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Ed Miliband's trade union reforms are essential to building a fairer society

This isn't a diversion about process. Participative democracy is a key weapon in fighting poverty.

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on the Labour-union link at The St Bride Foundation in London on 9 July. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ed Miliband’s proposed reform of Labour’s trade union funding is the culmination of an argument that’s been simmering for a hundred years. Two weeks ago it boiled over. But it began in 1909 when a notorious House of Lords ruling banned trade union from members automatically donating money to the Labour Party.  The judgement ruled that an automatic "opt-in" was illegal. Just as today, the row around trade unionists opting in or out was linked to MPs’ wages (settled at £400pa by Asquith in 1911). The House of Lords ruling threatened to remove a core source of Labour funding, and many feared for Labour’s survival. 

And so it is today. We are told Miliband risks the historic link between Labour and the trade unions, and that in financial terms, Labour may not survive. The main difference between now and 100 years ago (the House of Lords ruling was overturned in 1913) is that the call for reform comes from the Labour Party leader himself, something unimaginable even in Tony Blair’s day, never mind Keir Hardie’s. These proposals make Tony Blair’s reform of Clause IV look like timid toe-dipping. What began as a little (or a large) local difficulty in Falkirk has, on the leader’s say so, become nothing less than a debate around the nature of politics itself. 

At heart, this isn’t primarily an argument about Labour’s link with the trade unions; it is primarily about Labour’s link with democracy, and whether our internal governance is democratic. Democracy and open politics, allied to social justice, are Labour’s core values. The very first meeting of the Labour Representation Committee, created by the trade unions in 1900, voted by 102 votes to three that "this conference is in favour of working class opinion being represented in the House of Commons." Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, is still in favour of that. So am I. So - I imagine - is everyone else in the party.

McCluskey’s angry response to the Falkirk allegations was to say that Unite simply worked within the rules to select a working class woman as Labour's candidate. Unite – and Labour – are right to look for more diverse parliamentarians.  It is a scandal that 60% of the Tory and Lib Dem cabinet that entered Downing Street in 2010 were privately educated (compared to 32% in Labour’s last cabinet). Only 7% of British people are privately educated; in the 21st century you’d expect the other 93% of us to have a bit more say in running the country. 

Yes I want more trade unionists in Parliament. I’m one of them, I was a full-time trade union regional organiser representing low-paid workers when I became an MP in 1997. But things change: it’s not just Labour that doesn’t have enough working class MPs. Trade unions themselves are not as working class as they used to be. As David Goodhart points out "astonishingly, 52% of union members now have a degree or some other higher education qualification, compared with just 41% of the workforce as a whole. So, in their 150 year history, the unions have moved from being mainly guilds for skilled craftsmen to being mainly guilds for public sector professionals, with a phase in the middle when they also recruited poorer, less skilled workers."

Ironically, it’s the recruitment of low-skilled and low-paid workers where the trade unions and Labour now struggle most. Engaging and recruiting this group is made harder by all sorts of economic, demographic and cultural shifts. But we must engage them, not least because prosperity for the rest, including the squeezed middle – and success for One Nation – depends on it. Keir Hardie said that "Socialism offers a platform broad enough for all to stand upon. It makes war upon a system, not upon a class." And here’s the rub: the system, the process, is often as important as politics itself. 

Some say Falkirk is a diversion about process. Who cares about Labour’s selection procedures when 6.5m workers in Britain subsist on poverty pay? Dave Prentis of Unison said in response to Falkirk "the real issues are 2.5m unemployed, families relying on food banks, payday loan sharks, massive cuts to public services." And he’s right. The mistake is to forget that the way we do politics impacts on poverty itself; on the number of people in jobs, using food banks, at the mercy of loan sharks. 

At first glance this might seem doubtful. But I spent almost a decade representing the constituency with the highest density of poverty in Britain and I realised that participative democracy is a key weapon in fighting poverty. I saw it with my own eyes. I chaired a project to regenerate the council estate with the highest child mortality rate in Europe, and I saw that if you engage people to find solutions, they rise to the challenge. They set up fresh food co-ops. They acquire new skills. They create new jobs. They give their kids new lives. They become politically active. Many of them escape poverty. 

In a nutshell, participative democracy reaches the parts the welfare state cannot reach: it engages the mind. In time we may find that inclusive governance and active citizenship are more effective in reducing poverty than increasing the top rate of income tax. The Labour Party, of all parties, must be genuinely democratic from the roots up. That is why it is so vital that Ed Miliband presses ahead with these reforms.  

If machine politics are the death throes of the old order, the old order is nowhere near dead. It’s alive and well on the left and right of the party. I’ve seen it up close in Tower Hamlets. I saw it during the London Mayoral selection (and although it’s not the reason I lost, it’s the reason I nearly didn’t stand; yet surely we want democratic contests, not coronations). I joined the Labour Party when I was 14, and I’ve spent my entire adult life campaigning for the party I love. But here’s what I hate: I hate knowing a contest is stitched up before it’s begun.  Or that a contest is fought where resources are massively unequal.  Most people feel the same.

The challenge for politicians is to re-imagine politics so that it appeals to the many, not the very few. Ed Miliband’s audacious attempt to directly engage millions of trade union members, and to actively persuade them to "opt-in", rather than opt-out, reflects the best of Labour’s values. It’s not the easy path. His audacity would have astonished members of the House of Lords in 1909 who wanted to destroy the Labour Party. Yet the prize will be a democratically robust party, energised and fit for purpose in the 21st century. Labour’s trade union founders would be proud.

Oona King is a Labour peer and a Diversity Executive at Channel 4. She was MP for Bethnal Green and Bow from 1997 to 2005