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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”