Ed Miliband delivers his speech on the Labour- trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London last July. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Ed Miliband interview - on the trade unions, party funding and Arnie Graf

The Labour leader says "there’s a big, big contrast between us as an expanding party and the Tories".

On Saturday, Labour will hold its Special Conference on Ed Miliband’s party reforms, an event that was originally anticipated as a make-or-break moment for his leadership. But happily for Miliband, there’ll be no need for a John Prescott-style figure to plead with the trade unions to back him at the eleventh hour. After being approved by 28 votes to two on the NEC, the reforms are likely to be overwhelmingly endorsed when the party gathers at the Excel Centre in London (one Labour source predicts a 75-80 per cent vote in favour). Given the anxiety that they initially provoked, on both the left and the right of the party, this is no small achievement.

Ahead of the conference, Miliband has been holding meetings with party members to outline the vision behind the changes, the latest being in Leeds last Friday. Speaking at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, accompanied by Rachel Reeves, Miliband was in confident form, contrasting the potential for Labour to once again become a “mass movement”, with the Tories (“a party for a few at the top with a declining membership”) and with the Lib Dems, who, he quipped, “are thinking of hiring a telephone box for their next party meeting - if the telephone box will have them”.

After Miliband had finished taking questions from members, I did a short interview with him about the reforms and their implications for the party. I began by asking him why he waited nearly three years after his election as Labour leader before making the changes. He told me:

On why the reforms weren't made earlier

Look, change is difficult. I think as you’ve seen from some people’s reaction in the early stages, people always say, and reading back on the history of Clause IV, which I’ve been doing a bit, preparing for my speech at the Special Conference, people said at the time: ‘this is a distraction, we should be fighting the Tories, we shouldn’t be talking about these issues.’ It’s always hard to make this the biggest priority. Frankly, I think we saw big problems in Falkirk and I, instead of saying we’re just going to ignore the problems and hope they go away, thought ‘what does this tell us to do in terms of bigger reform of the party?’ and I think it’s been right to use that moment to embark on big reform and I’m hopeful that we’ll get it through on 1 March.

He spoke hopefully of attracting “another 200,000 registered supporters and affiliated supporters”, more than doubling Labour’s current membership of 187,537. He added: “It’s important that Labour Party members understand this point, that isn’t just about some big number of 400,000. That is about doubling the membership of each Constituency Labour Party. Now, if I think about my own Constituency Labour Party, that would make a massive difference, having not 350 people, but 700 people, that is a big deal that we’re talking about. It’s about that big change and the big change on the ground.”

On how large the financial hit will be 

If the potential benefits of the reforms are clear, so are the potential costs. Labour sources estimate that the decision to require trade unionists to opt-in to donating to the party, rather than having their payments automatically transferred by general secretaries, will cost Labour at least £4m (if half of the current 2.7 million levy-payers opt-in) and as much as £7m (if 10 per cent do). When I asked Miliband how large he expects the funding hit to be, he replied:

That is dependent on us. That is dependent on our ability to persuade people to be part of the party, to pay their affiliation fee, to positively consent to that in the first instance, and to be part of the party. That is a joint responsibility on the trade unions and the Labour Party to reach out to people. But we’re phasing it in over five years, that’s the right thing to do, it’s commonly consented to be the right thing to do, very few people now argue against that change, I think it’s been accepted. I think it can also make us more solid financially, in a way, because we will have people who are actually properly affiliated supporters of the party, in local parties, who can become members of the party. You shouldn’t just stop at being an affiliated supporter, you want people to go from being registered supporters, affiliated supporters to being members.

On the GMB's decision to cut its funding by £1m

I asked him whether he was disappointed that the GMB, Labour’s third largest union affiliate, had pre-emptively reduced its funding from £1.2m to £150,000, rather than seeking to persuade as many members as possible to opt-in to Labour membership.

I just think that’s one of those things. When change happens, people find it uncomfortable and I understand some of the reasons for that. Change is never easy, particularly in a political party, because things have been done in a certain way for a long time. I actually think, if you look at the debate in the last few months, right across the party, the unions, socialist societies and others, people have handled it in an incredibly mature way. People’s fear was we’re going to spend seven months talking about ourselves, we haven’t done that. We’ve talked about the bedroom tax, the 50p tax, the energy price freeze, all of those things, I think we’ve taken it in our stride, it’s been difficult for some people, and I understand the reasons for that, but I think the party’s behaved in an incredibly mature way.

On the importance of Arnie Graf 

One of the key figures behind Miliband’s ambition to make Labour a “movement” is Arnie Graf, the godfather of community organising and a mentor of the young Barack Obama, who was appointed by Labour to train activists in the campaigning methods he pioneered in Chicago. But the American is not universally admired in the party, with some recently raising questions over his immigration status (via a story in the Sun) in an attempt to damage his position (and that of one of his allies, Labour general secretary Ian MacNicol). Miliband, however, was fulsome in his praise for Graf:

The really interesting thing about Arnie is, if you go round and talk to our organisers and our candidates, they are the people who’ve had the most exposure to him and who are the most positive about the role he’s playing. They say ‘he opened my eyes to doing politics in a different way’, to reaching out to people, to the way we make policy, to the way we engage people, to not just being seven people in a drizzle, but expanding our base, all of that. I think he’s got a very important role to play and I think he’s a great influence.

He ended by telling me: "The key thing about this is it’s about people from every walk of life: working people, ambulance drivers, NHS workers, flood workers, engineers, shop workers, entrepreneurs, small business people, who can be registered supporters and part of this, it’s about an expanding party and I think there’s a big, big contrast between us as an expanding party and the Tories a party, increasingly, of a narrow elite and of a smaller number of people."

On electoral reform: "not the answer to disengagement"

One other answer worth noting, from the Q&A with members, was on electoral reform. Miliband was asked about the possibility of Labour supporting proportional representation and replied that "electoral reform is not the answer to disengagement with politics". He also noted the decisive result of the AV referendum and that the issue had divided Labour.

Expect the desirability, or not, of electoral reform to be one of the main dividing lines between Labour and the Lib Dems at the election. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Five of Scotland’s most exciting general election battles

Will unionists hook the big Salmond in Gordon? And can the Tories overrun the Scottish Borders? Everything's up for grabs. 

In 2015, the Scottish National Party won Scotland in a landslide. With the next election expected in 2020, politics for the next five years looked homogenous, managerial and predictable. 

But then came Brexit, talk of a second independence referendum, and an early election. Now everything's at play. Depending on your perspective, this is a proxy indyref2, or a chance to condemn the Brexit government, or the opporunity to turn Scotland blue. One thing is sure - local contests will not just be about collecting the bins on time, but about the great constitutional questions of the day. With a giant splash of egotism. 

Here is my pick of the constituency battles to watch:

1. Who’s the biggest unionist of them all?

Constituency: East Renfrewshire
Battle to watch: Blair McDougall (Labour) vs Paul Masterton (Tory)

If anything symbolised the #Indyreffightback, it was the toppling of Jim Murphy, the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire in 2015. Murphy had slogged away for the No campaign during the 2014 referendum, braving egg throwers and cybernat centurions to make the case for the UK in 100 towns across Scotland. Being ousted by the Scottish National Party’s Kirsten Oswald was the biggest metaphorical egg of them all. 

Still, Murphy only lost by 3,718 votes. The self-styled defenders of the union, the Scottish Tories, have spied an opportunity, and made East Renfrewshire a target seat. Paul Masterton, a local activist, hopes to follow in the footsteps of Jackson Carlaw, who snapped up the same area for the Tories in the Scottish parliamentary elections last year. 

But who’s that appearing on the horizon? Blair McDougall, the former Better Together chief, is waving Labour’s banner. And no one can accuse him of flip flopping on the independence question. 

Since quashing a second independence referendum is the priority for pro-union voters of East Renfrewshire choose, they are likely to vote tactically. So which candidate can persuade them  he’s the winner?

2. The best shade of yellow

Constituency: East Dunbartonshire
Battle: Jo Swinson (Lib Dem) vs John Nicolson (Labour)

When Jo Swinson first won her home constituency in 2005, she was just 25, and by her early thirties, she was pacing the inner sanctums of the Coalition government. But in 2015, East Dunbartonshire voters decided to give her an early retirement and opted for the former broadcaster, the SNP’s John Nicolson, instead by 2,167 votes. 

In England, the Lib Dem surge has been fuelled by an emotional Europeanism. Swinson, though, can sing “Ode to Joy” as many times as she wants – it won’t change the fact that Nicolson is also against Brexit.
So instead, the contest is likely to come down to two factors. One is the characters involved. Nicolson has used his media clout to raise his profile – but has also been accused of “bullying” STV into dropping its political editor Stephen Daisley (Nicolson denies the claims)

The other is the independence referendum. East Dunbartonshire voted 61.2 per cent to stay in the UK in 2014. If voters feel the same way, and vote tactically this time, Nicolson may wish to resurrect his TV career. 

3. Revenge of the Tories

Constituency: Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk
Battle: John Lamont (Tory) vs Calum Kerr (SNP)

And the winner is… anyone who can reel off this constituency name without twisting their tongue. Let’s call it BRK, or Project Blue. 

BRK, a rural constituency in the Scottish borders, was once a comfortable home for the Liberal Democrat Michael Moore. He was driven out in 2015 by the SNP’s Calum Kerr. Indeed, such was the political turmoil that Moore slumped to third place. Kerr’s biggest rival was the conservative John Lamont. 

Two years later, the electoral horns are sounding, and Lamont is so confident of his victory that he is standing down as an MSP. There were just 328 votes between him and Kerr last time round. So who will be the new ruler of BRK?

4. Labour’s last stand

Constituency: Edinburgh South
Battle: Ian Murray (Labour) vs everyone else

When Ian Murray first won Edinburgh South for Labour in 2010, he might have been in his early thirties, but he was surrounded by Labour heavyweights like Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy. Five years later, after a catastrophic election night, he was the only Labour MP left in Scotland. 

Murray’s survival is down partly to his seat – a leafy, academic constituency that epitomises Edinburgh’s pro-union, pro-Remain vote – and his no-nonsense opinion on both these issues (he’s no fan of Jeremy Corbyn either). A similarly-minded Labour candidate, Daniel Johnson, won the overlapping Scottish parliamentary constituency in 2016.

Now, though, Murray is fighting a defensive battle on two fronts. The SNP came second in 2015, and will likely field a candidate again. But those with longer memories know that Edinburgh South was once a Tory realm. Stephanie Smith, who is also standing for local elections, will be trying to take a bite out of Murray’s pro-union vote. 

Still, Murray has a good chance of outlasting the siege. As one Labour activist put it: “I think I’ll be spending the next six weeks camping out in Edinburgh South.” 

5. The big fish in the pond

Constituency: Gordon
Battle: Alex Salmond (SNP) vs Colin Clark (Tory)

Freed from the chains of high office, Alex Salmond is increasingly in touch with his inner charismatic bully. When not trying to wind up Anna Soubry, he is talking up a second independence referendum at inconvenient moments and baiting the Brexiteers. This is the big fish the pro-union movement would love to catch. 

But can they do it? Salmond won the seat in 2015 from the Liberal Democrats with a majority of 8,687 votes. Taking on this whopper is Colin Clark, a humble Tory councillor, and he knows what he’s up against.  He called for every unionist to back him, adding: “I have been in training since 2015 and I am fit and ready to win this seat in June.”

To get a sense of how much the Scottish referendum has changed politics, consider the fact that Labour activists are ludicrously excited by this prospect. But however slippery he may be, the SNP goliath in person can win over even devout unionists.  I’m not betting on a hooked Salmond any time soon. 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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