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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.