Miliband announces Special Conference to approve Labour-trade union reforms

In an echo of Blair's revision of Clause IV, the Labour leader announces that a Special Conference will be held next spring to approve this "historic reform of Labour’s constitution".

One criticism made of Ed Miliband's recent speech on the Labour-union link was that he failed to provide enough detail on how and when the proposed changes, most notably the introduction of an opt-in system for affiliated members (which will cost Labour millions in funding), would be introduced. Would the reforms be in place before the next election?

It's a point the Labour leader will seek to address at an event in Coin Street, London, tonight with voters, trade unionists and party members. In remarks before the Q&A, Miliband will announce that at the next meeting of Labour's NEC he will ask members to agree that a Special Conference should be held next spring to approve the changes. It's an echo of the approach previously adopted by Tony Blair, who similarly held a Special Conference in Easter 1995 to approve his revision of Clause IV, and means that the Labour leader won't have to wait until the 2014 conference to seek formal endorsement of the reforms. The announcement should go some way to appeasing those who have criticised the lack of consultation with party members. Following Miliband's speech, Compass head Neal Lawson wrote: "Once Labour would have called a special conference; now everyone just waits for the leader's speech." The Labour leader has just confounded the sceptics.

Miliband will also outline what the party describes as a "route-map to the Special Conference". As previously announced, former party general secretary and TGWU official Ray Collins will lead a review into how the reforms will be implemented and the wider implications for candidate selections, annual conference, the National Policy Forum and the leadership election system. At present, the party leader is chosen by an electoral college split three ways between the party's 272 MPs and MEPs, all party members (193,000 at the last count) and members of affiliated trade unions and socialist societies (around 2.7 million). But should Miliband make all trade unionists who choose to donate full members of the party (as seems likely), the third of these sections would effectively cease to exist.

The Collins Review will consult over the summer, asking how the reforms should be implemented, and will publish an interim consultation document for debate at this year’s party conference in Brighton. In addition, Miliband will launch a national campaign today, including a series of town-hall meetings, "to explain how Labour is changing".

Harriet Harman and Phil Wilson, who helped Blair reform Clause IV and who succeeded him as MP for Sedgefield in 2007, have been given "special responsibility" for debating the changes with party members. Alongside them, two key Miliband allies, Jon Trickett and Rachel Reeves, will examine what further reforms are needed to make Labour a mass membership party, drawing on the work begun under US community organiser Arnie Graf. 

Miliband will say: 

If we succeed in this then Labour has a historic opportunity to become a truly 21st Century party. A party powered by people, a party that can change a country that has a politics too often skewed to the interests of a wealthy and powerful few.

Britain’s working people don’t get to have cosy dinners in Downing Street to discuss policy, like David Cameron’s big donors. They don’t have lobbyists looking after their interests, like the big tobacco companies do with Lynton Crosby. Britain’s families don’t get enormous tax cuts, like the hedge funds and the millionaires.

That’s why they need a party that is open to them. That is on their side. A One Nation Labour Party for all the people of Britain, not just a few at the top. We’re going to build a new way of doing politics. We want to open up our policy-making, clean up the lobbying industry and take the big money out of politics. And we want to let people back in. So I want all Labour party members, supporters, trade union members involved in this dialogue, leading up the Special Conference this spring to agree change.

All of our country’s history shows that change does not come just from a few people at the top. Change comes when individual people come together to demand it. The Labour Party has a chance to help make that happen. To build a movement again. A movement that makes change happen in communities across the country. And a movement that changes Britain.

With so much attention on Labour's relationship with the trade unions, Lord Ashcroft, the Tory donor turned prolific pollster, has conducted a survey of Unite members, including how many would pay to join Labour. We'll have the results in full on The Staggers after the embargo ends at midnight. 

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on reforming the Labour-union link at The St Bride Foundation in London on 9 July 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser