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Who will act as Ed Miliband’s working class bodyguard?

Twenty years ago, John Prescott persuaded sceptical delegates to back John Smith's trade union reforms, but who will fulfil this role for Miliband at March's special conference?

John Prescott listens to Ed Miliband deliver his speech at the Labour conference in 2012 in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

When Ed Miliband stands in front of Labour’s special conference in eight short weeks who will he turn to as an embodiment of the party’s traditional working class base to help sell his proposals to weaken trade union influence over the party?

Twenty years ago, this was the role John Prescott played when he rescued John Smith’s leadership after Smith challenged trade union dominance of parliamentary selections and leadership contests with his One Member One Vote (OMOV) reforms to the party’s constitution. Smith’s own deputy, Margaret Beckett, was thought to be sceptical about the changes, so Prescott was instead asked to address the 1993 Labour conference to speak in favour. It was a good job he did. As the Guardian reported at the time:

"At midday, Mr Smith, apparently facing defeat, took the high-risk decision to draft in the sometimes unpredictable Mr Prescott to make a final appeal to wavering delegates.

"Playing on his impeccable working-class credentials, Mr Prescott reassured delegates to storming applause that Mr Smith had no hidden agenda to break the union-party link."

Smith’s biographer Andy McSmith records that "the speech does not read well, but its impact was electrifying". Prescott exploited his credibility as a working class trade unionist and the trust union members (and their general secretaries) had in him as someone watching out for their interests. His message was simple: "If I’m comfortable with this change, then you can be too." The OMOV reforms were passed by a majority of just 0.2 per cent. 

But who now plays the vital role of working class bodyguard for Ed Miliband? Again, the chances of success are perilously balanced. Although promising to "mend not end" the relationship between the party and its affiliated unions (by insisting that their members participate in party affairs as individuals rather than as a bloc controlled by union general secretaries), Miliband faces powerful headwinds.

The GMB union has already cut its affiliation fees to the party from £1.2m to £150,000, warning that the reforms relegate the party’s 15 affiliated trade unions to "placard carriers and cheque writers". Meanwhile, the executive of Unite – Labour’s largest trade union affiliate - said it "cannot support any proposal that would lead to the collective voice of Unite being expressed solely through individual Unite members…"

Like Smith with OMOV and later with Blair and Clause IV, a large, totemic change at the party’s special conference on 1 March may energise Miliband’s leadership and show he is master of his party, providing a springboard for the next election. But if he fails to deliver the reforms, or only manages to push through a watered-down version that requires years to implement, vital political credibility will have been lost.

Although he became Labour leader back in 2010 courtesy of the trade unions, Miliband is not a creature of the movement and neither, for that matter, is his deputy, Harriet Harman. During the 2007 deputy leadership election, she polled less than half the first preference votes of trade union members that Jon Cruddas did. As the current head of Labour’s policy review - and a persuasive advocate of trade unionism, Cruddas may be called-up to help out his leader. So might Alan Johnson, a vocal supporter of Miliband’s reform proposals and, in another life, a former general secretary of the Communication Workers Union. Yet neither man is in the Prescott mould when it comes to tub-thumping.

For all his iconoclasm, Tony Blair recognised John Prescott gave him enormous heft in his management of the party (and was more wary of upsetting union leaders than is usually remembered). Indeed, Blair was one of the first to congratulate the audacity of Miliband’s move, remarking that he had not dared bring forward similar plans himself.

The story doing the rounds is that Miliband’s proposals were dreamt up at a summer barbecue with a small band of advisers as a tactical response to the swirling row over the Falkirk selection. Party officials were later left white-faced working out how the plans will actually be implemented without scuttling the party’s finances in case union affiliation fees nosedive as hundreds of thousands of individual trade unionists do not, in fact, queue up to join Labour.

This is a familiar tale of Labour high-ups failing to appreciate how the organisation’s delicate internal circuitry works. The consultation review Miliband has established under Labour’s former general secretary Ray Collins says the aim is to "build Labour into a mass party, growing our membership from 200,000 to 500,000, 600,000 or more." Yet Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, says as few as 10 per cent of his members will end up signing up to the party.

Miliband needs a conduit - a bridge - to the trade union movement to help sell these proposals while causing minimum offence. John Prescott – the Humber Bridge, so to speak, fulfilled that role for both John Smith and Tony Blair. But who can Miliband now turn to?