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 shadow welsh secretary and Labour MP for Pontypridd.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses