Leader: Ed Miliband has shown leadership and courage

With a mixture of high-minded principle and political cunning, he has reimagined the Labour-unions link for a less collectivist age.

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on the Labour-trade union link at The St Bridge Foundation in London yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.

The art of political leadership lies in turning crisis into advantage and misfortune into gain. In his deft response to the Labour parliamentary selection scandal in Falkirk, Ed Miliband succeeded in doing both. It was not a fight he chose. Ever since his election in 2010, the Labour leader had resisted defining himself against his own party, shunning tiresome demands for a “Clause Four moment” and prizing unity above all else. But confronted by the imperial ambitions of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, and the insistent question “Who runs Labour?”, he has taken a path more radical than any of his recent predecessors.

His plan to require trade union members to opt in to donating to the party, rather than being automatically enrolled by general secretaries, would be the most significant change to the Labour-unions relationship since the party’s formation in 1900. If Mr Miliband’s support for democracy and transparency is to be consistent, it is also an entirely necessary one.

At present, of the 15 unions affiliated to Labour, only Unison allows new members to choose whether or not they contribute to the party when they sign up. Just two others, the Musicians’ Union and Usdaw, mention the existence of a political fund (but do not mention Labour) and six affiliated unions, including Unite and the GMB, do not mention Labour at all in the membership sections of their websites. As a result, even though all members have the formal right to opt out of paying the levy, just 10 per cent do so in practice, and many are not even aware of the fund’s existence. It is this arrangement that allows the Conservatives to argue, with some justification, that unions such as Unite (just 37.5 per cent of whose members vote Labour) dupe workers into subsidising the Labour Party.

By turning his back on such machine politics and declaring that no individual will donate to the party “unless they have deliberately chosen to do so”, Mr Miliband has confronted this charge head-on. No longer will Labour and the unions’ relationship be defined by backroom meetings between the leader and his or her representatives and the general secretaries. Instead, Mr Miliband will reach out to the three million workers who now pay the political levy and seek to rebuild Labour as a mass-membership party. At a time of corrosive cynicism with politics, his vision of a party “truly rooted in every community and every walk of life”, a party of “shopworkers, nurses, engineers, bus drivers, construction workers, people from the public and private sector”, is an inspiring one.

Comparisons with Tony Blair’s decision to rewrite Clause Four understate the boldness of the move. Mr Blair’s revision of that hallowed section of Labour’s constitution, which committed the party to “col - lective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, was of largely symbolic significance. The party had long abandoned its support for wholesale nationalisation. By contrast, the reforms announced by Mr Miliband on 9 July will have profound consequences for Labour. Party officials privately estimate that the introduction of an opt-in system would result in the loss of at least £5m of the £8m it currently receives each year in union affiliation fees. For a party with existing debts of £9.9m – more than every other party put together – the act is almost masochistic.

Worse, should relatively few trade unionists choose to join the party, it will be hard for the unions to justify remaining affiliated at all. The events set in motion by Mr Miliband could lead to the severing of all ties between Labour and its founders. It is the immensity of this gamble that prompted the rare praise for Mr Miliband from Mr Blair, who declared: “This is big stuff and it takes a real act of leadership to do it.”

If the risks are great, then so, too, are the potential rewards. Having abandoned his previous opposition to the introduction of an opt-in system, at potentially great cost to his party, he has earned the right to challenge the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to reopen the stalled talks on party funding. Should the Tories continue to resist his proposal of a cap of £5,000 on all donations, he will be able to present them as a party too much in hock to vested interests to reform a system that verges on corruption. The Conservatives will insist that Mr Miliband’s position contradicts past statements and that he has acted under duress. That still leaves unanswered the question of how they will respond now.

The Labour leader showed similar astuteness in calling for a limit on MPs’ outside earnings, as we did in a leader last week. He was right to recognise the public disdain for those whose second jobs often pay “higher salaries than the job of an MP itself”. As we argued, restrictions on outside earnings would also make it easier to justify any future increase in MPs’ pay. The Conservatives’ decision to respond by describing Mr Miliband’s proposal as a “smokescreen” represented a profound misreading of the public mood. As in the case of big-money donations, David Cameron has exposed himself to the charge he is defending the interests of his own side. In the 2012-2013 parliamentary session, Tory MPs declared more than £4.3m in earnings from outside directorships or jobs, compared to £2.4m by their Labour counterparts, £1.37m of which was accounted for by Gordon Brown, who did not personally benefit from any of the money.

Mr Miliband’s promise to introduce a new code of conduct for those seeking parliamentary selection, a cap on spending by candidates and organisations operating on their behalf (including trade unions) and standard constituency agreements with the unions so that no one can be subjected to undue local pressure was the minimum required to restore trust in the selection process after the Falkirk debacle.

Far bolder was his announcement that primaries will be held to select Labour’s 2016 London mayoral candidate and to choose parliamentary candidates in seats where the local party has few members or, in effect, is moribund. While seeking to recruit as many members as possible to Labour, he is also right to recognise the need to engage with those who will never be persuaded to join by allowing them to register as supporters and vote in selection contests.

Faced with his biggest crisis as leader, Mr Miliband demonstrated the ambition and idealism that were the most attractive features of his campaign in 2010. With a mixture of high-minded principle and political cunning, he has reimagined the Labour-unions link for a less collectivist age.

This past week, Mr Cameron derided him as “too weak to run Labour and certainly too weak to run the country”. The reverse may now apply. If Mr Miliband can sustain the moral courage and the stamina that will be required in order to transform his party into something that looks more like a mass movement for economic and social change, he will have proved his credentials to serve as the nation’s prime minister.