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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder