Ed Miliband waits in front of his office at Portcullis House for the arrival of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on February 03, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour backs Miliband's party reforms by 86% - but the really hard work begins now

After today's comfortable victory, far greater political and financial challenges lie ahead for the party.

Labour's Special Conference has just voted in favour of Ed Miliband's party reforms by an overwhelming majority: 86.29% to 13.71%. Party affiliates (trade unions and socialist societies) voted in favour by 48.42% to 1.58%  and constituency party delegates by 37.87% to 12.13% (some London CLPs, in particular, were angered by the decision to use a closed primary to select Labour's London mayoral candidate). Given the concern that the changes initially provoked, on the left and the right of the party, the result is no small achievement. Shrewd party management by Miliband, Ray Collins (who led the review) and Simon Fletcher (Miliband's trade union liaison manager) ensured that this wasn't the bloodbath that the media wanted.

But for Labour, as Miliband knows, the really hard work begins now. The party's future financial health now depends on its ability to persuade trade union levy payers to opt into donating (their affiliation fees are currently automatically transferred by union general secretaries). If Miliband is to achieve his stated ambition to build a "movement" and to revitalise Labour, he will also need thousands of workers to choose to become associate members.

The other challenge will be managing relations between the party and the union general secretaries. As early as Wednesday, when Unite's executive meets, Len McCluskey is expected to announce that the party's largest donor is reducing its affiliation fees to Labour by £1.5m to reflect the fact that almost half of its levy payers do not support the party. With the GMB, Labour's third largest union affiliate, already having cut its funding by £1.05m, the changes could have cost the party £2.55m by next week. In total, Labour sources estimate that the reforms will cost it 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).

The hope and expectation among Labour figures is that the unions will make up the shortfall through one-off donations (which are not affected by the reforms) to ensure that the party is in fighting shape for the general election. With only a minority of levy payers like to opt-in, the unions will be left with a surplus in their political funds. But the complication for Labour is that theysare unlikely to hand this money over without demanding something in return.

As McCluskey said in his speech to Unite following Miliband's announcement of the changes last summer, he will no longer tolerate those who "welcome our money but don't want our policy input" and expects Unite to have "enhanced" influence under the new system because "our voice and our votes are looked at as legitimate". On another occasion, he told the Guardian that while he was not "looking to bankrupt the party", future funding would depend on "the policies Labour themselves are adopting, and in the context of whether we would give donations that would be determined by my executive and my political committees. It is a collective decision".

McCluskey's policy wishlist includes an end to public spending cuts, the repeal of the benefit cap, and the building of a million extra homes. The challenge for Miliband will be adopting policies radical enough to appease the unions while also ensuring Labour sticks to its tough deficit reduction targets. Far greater battles than today lie ahead.

Here's the speech Miliband delivered after the result was announced by Angela Eagle, the shadow leader of the House of Commons and the chair of the NEC:

Well friends, first of all, thank you.

You know, I took a big risk last July but I did it because I believed, and I believe today that we can only face up to the big challenges that our country faces if we face up to the challenges in our party.

That is what we have done today and we should all be proud of the Labour party that has shown the courage to change.


I just want to say one thing very directly to the country.

Some of you left us at the last general election.

Some of you thought we lost touch.

You were right.

These changes agreed today are designed to ensure that this party never loses touch again with the British people.

And now, the vote to change our party has been won.

The fight to change our country is just beginning.

So let’s go out and fight for the young people who need a job.

Let’s go out and fight for disabled people paying the bedroom tax today in our country.

Let’s go out and fight for all the low paid workers facing a cost of living crisis.

Let’s go out and fight for those families who need better childcare.

Let’s go out and fight for the small businesses people who need someone on their side.

And let’s go out and fight for the future of our National Health Service.

Above all, let’s go out and fight with every fibre of our being for the future of this country.

It’s in our hands.

We know Britain can be better than this.

Let’s go out and prove it.

Let’s go out and win.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.