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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.