Miliband is remaking Labour as a true people's party

The reforms announced today will enhance Labour's traditional links and lay the foundations for new, open and powerful alliances.

Ed Miliband and the Labour Party cross a watershed today, opening up a new phase in the history of the Labour movement and the possibility of a new openness in British politics. The announcements Ed has made today are about renewing and revitalising not just our party, but the wider politics within which we operate. They mark the beginning of a bold and historic attempt to make Labour a true people’s party once more, a party of mass membership, with deep and strong roots in communities and constituencies across the whole of our One Nation. And the unions are not an impediment to our achieving this, they are the key.

Three million people or more are today members of trade unions affiliated to the Labour and thus have a special relationship with our party. That relationship is hugely important. It anchors our party in work and community and ordinary people’s lives. It must never be broken because that would break Labour and break our ability to govern once more in the interests of working people in the teeth of corporate power, financial elites and other entrenched vested interests.

But that historic relationship must be renewed and strengthened, to reflect a modern world where people – including trade unionists – want more from politics. They rightly want a greater sense of personal connection and engagement with institutions, including the Labour Party, that have become too distant from their lives and concerns. The change to the process of affiliation which we have laid out today is about inviting individual trade unionists to affiliate to Labour in a more direct and conscious manner than ever before – to take a fuller part in the future direction of the Labour Party, and through it in the future direction of our country.

The prize, for those individual members, for the unions of which they are a part, and for Labour, is to come together anew, powerfully and openly, as a movement for change in our country. A movement that builds an economy and a society that delivers opportunities and better outcomes – wealth and education and culture and community – for everyone, not just for those with money or connections at the top. We have to walk that walk on behalf of the many once more, as well as talking the talk.

That change will entail challenge and risk for all concerned. For our party it means scrutinising the routes by which people are selected to represent our party, to make sure that money or other means can’t load the dice in favour or one candidate or another. It also means we will need to work harder in the future to persuade individuals, and the unions they belong to, that they should support Labour, financially and philosophically. But relationships are strengthened by such tests and I believe we can emerge from this challenge with our traditional links enhanced and the foundations laid for forging new, open and powerful alliances with individual citizens and other community organisations – including currently unaffiliated trade unions.

However, it is not just the Labour movement that Ed Miliband has thrown down a gauntlet to today. Our pledge to make the relationship between the trade unions and the party even more transparent, to curb the role of money in our politics and to open up our party more than ever before is a challenge to all political leaders in the UK, but especially to David Cameron and his Conservative Party. And though people in the media and our political opponents will ask questions today about exactly how these changes will work within our party, Ed Miliband has been clear that, whatever the precise mechanisms, he is determined to bring about this historic reform. Far less clear is whether David Cameron has the courage or the integrity to pick up the gauntlet and put his own house in order.

Will David Cameron match Ed’s pledge to do something about MPs holding down jobs outside Parliament? It’s anathema to most of our constituents and the vast majority of Labour MPs, but second nature to so many on the Tory benches. Don’t hold your breath. Or will he do something to acknowledge the rottenness of a small number of hugely wealthy individual donors bankrolling the operations of the Conservative Party? No longer Lord Ashcroft, perhaps – though his millions helped secure seats for so many – but there are plenty of others queuing up to buy patronage and policy. Don’t take my word for it: just follow the money to seats in the Lords, the tax cuts for millionaires and the corporate bank accounts that the Treasury can’t or won’t touch.

The contrast in British politics and the choice that the British people will face at the next election is clearer than ever today. Labour under Ed Miliband wants a new politics and a new deal for the British people: one based on transparency and openness, fairness and trust, the interests of the many not the few. Today’s announcements underline those ambitions, and the courage and conviction with which Ed will pursue them. We are clear that Britain needs stronger trade unions, with more members and stronger rights and representation in public and private sectors. Their decline over the last 30 years has seen a fall in wages, living standards and social solidarity that Labour is committed to reversing. But Labour is equally clear that the Falkirk fix and David Cameron’s crony Conservatism are the last gasp of the old politics, of a way of governing Britain which the British people are rejecting, and we are determined to consign them both to the past.

Ed Miliband delivers his speech at The St Bride Foundation, Fleet Street earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.