Labour's Special Conference on Ed Miliband's party reforms, which takes place at the ExCel Centre in London tomorrow, was once expected to be 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. While there will be some dissenting voices (Young Labour and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union have announced they will vote against the changes), the reforms are likely to be overwhelmingly endorsed (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.
The real challenge for Miliband is to elevate the occasion from a wonkish and technical discussion of party reform (as necessary and democratic as that is) to a showcase of his vision for Labour and the country. His chance to do so will come when he opens the debate at 11am (delegates will vote on the motion at 1pm with the result announced around 1:30pm). Labour has released extracts of the speech in advance; here's my summary of the three key messages Miliband will deliver tomorrow.
1. The reforms will help get working people back into party politics
As politicians regularly lament, public disillusionment with them has rarely been greater. Just 65 per cent of people voted at the last election (despite it being the narrowest for 18 years) and just 1 per cent belong to a political party. With 187,537 members, Labour is the largest of the three main parties (the Lib Dems have 43,451 and the Tories 134,000) but this is still down from 405,000 in 1997.
One of Miliband's hopes is that his reforms will help to make the party more attractive to non-members. Recognising the limits of of the traditional model of party membership, he will allow Labour's 2.7 million trade union levy payers (who currently pay an affiliation fee of £3 a year) to become associate members and others to become registered supporters (also for £3), allowing them to attend local CLP meetings and to vote in leadership and deputy leadership elections (albeit a "long, long time in the future", as Miliband quipped at a meeting in Leeds last week). By significantly lowering the bar to entry, Miliband hopes to attract thousands of new recruits. This might be seen as creating a disincentive to membership (and it will in some respects) but Labour is keen to emphasise that only full members (who pay £45 a year) will be able to vote in candidate selections, to stand for election and to attend conference as delegates.
Given that trade unions are full of the "ordinary" voters beloved of politicians, Miliband is understandably excited by the prospect of bringing these "ghosts in the machine" into the party. If 10 per cent (270,000) of current levy-payers sign up (the private estimate made by party officials and union leaders), the party will more than double its membership. As Miliband told me last week: "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."
He will say tomorrow:
More and more people are turned off from politics. It increasingly feels like a match being played while the stands are emptying. We won’t turn that round by saying we’re right and they’re wrong. We won’t do it by singing the old songs even louder. If we do we’ll find ourselves shouting in an empty stadium.
That’s why today we are debating much more than our internal party structures. We’re debating something far bigger: how do we get people back into our politics? Think about the people you meet in your daily lives. Let’s not fall for the myth that they don’t care. They do. They are just turned off political parties.
We have to have the courage to change. There are thousands of working people, affiliated to our Party, in your constituency. But at the moment you have no way of reaching them. Home helps who look after the elderly, and worry about their own mums and dads. Classroom assistants who teach our sons and daughters, and have high hopes for their own kids. Construction workers who build the homes we live in, but worry about whether they can afford a home of their own. People who keep our shops open morning, noon and night, but are at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis. And the porters, nurses and all the health service workers who support the pride of Britain: our National Health Service.
These are the working people affiliated to our party. But too often affiliated in name only. And think of all the other people, not in trade unions, whose voices we also need to hear: low-paid workers whose boss won’t recognise a union, small-business owners struggling to get a loan from the bank, stay-at-home mums who ask whether anyone is going to speak up for them.
I don’t want to break the link with working people. I want to hear the voices of working people louder than ever before. But in the 21st century, not everyone wants to be a member of a political party. And you shouldn’t have to pay £45 to have a voice in the Labour Party. That’s why I want to bring in the 100,000s of people who are supporters of our Party. And make them part of what we do.
2. The reforms are a huge transfer of power from MPs to party members
While most media comment has focused on the implications of the reforms for affiliated trade unions, who will lose their exclusive contact with political levy payers, it's MPs who are the biggest losers from the changes. At present, under Labour's tripartite electoral college system (with MPs, party members, and members of affiliated unions and socialist societies each receiving a third of the vote), the vote of one MP is worth the votes of 608 party members and 12,915 affiliated members. But the introduction of a full one-member-one-vote system (OMOV), completing the work begun by John Smith in 1993, means that MPs lose their privileged status. As Miliband will say:
Today, we won’t just be voting to open our doors. We’ll be voting for the biggest transfer of power in the history of our Party to our members and supporters. Today, in leadership elections, an MP’s vote is worth 1,000 times more than each Party member’s.
Twenty-one years ago John Smith set out on the journey of One Member, One Vote. Today we can complete that journey.
Let’s make ourselves the party of equality. Not just in the policies we propose, but in the politics we practice.
The consolation for MPs is that they retain the sole power to nominate candidates for election in leadership and deputy leadership contests. In addition, the threshold for nomination will be increased from 12.5 per cent to 15 per cent. While some in the party fear this is too low, and could result in the election of a leader who lacks support in the PLP, Miliband wanted to ensure that a wide range of candidates are able to qualify for election in the future. Under the originally proposed threshold of 25 per cent, only the Miliband brothers would have cleared the bar in 2010.
3. The chance to build a movement
Rather than simply amassing an army of leaflet deliverers, Miliband wants to use the reforms to turn Labour into a movement again, one embedded in local communities and in the lives of working people. As he has recently emphasised, throughout history, it has been mass movements that have created and preserved the space for progressive politics (he cited the example of the gay rights and racial equality movements in his speech in Leeds last week). With the aid of Arnie Graf, the godfather of community organising and a mentor of the young Barack Obama, Labour is seeking to transform moribund local constituency parties into agents for radical change.
As Miliband said of Graf in my interview with him last week: "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 will tell delegates tomorrow:
Keir Hardie used to call our Party a movement. Think about that word. It’s movements that change things.
Let’s invite people in and show what we can do together. Campaigning to stop the payday lenders ruining people’s lives, campaigning for and winning a living wage across our country. campaigning to freeze that energy bill, and in the next 200 days, campaigning and winning the fight to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom.
It has always been movements and people that change countries and change our world. If I am elected as Prime Minister I want to change this country, but I can only do it with a movement behind me, supporting what we do and shaping our policy.
Today if you vote for these reforms you will be voting for Labour to be a movement again. Arguing our case house by house, village by village, town by town. But movements are only as strong as the people within them. The depth, the diversity, the reach of a movement is the true measure of its strength and its ability to make change.
That’s why we have to change, that’s why we have to bring people in. Today, let’s vote to change our Party. Let’s build a movement. So that tomorrow, we can change our country.
It's a lofty ambition, but by involving thousands of new members in the party, the reforms will make it easier to achieve. And after the recent briefing against Graf (with a story planted in the Sun questioning his immigration status), Miliband's words are an important endorsement of his work.