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28 December 2010

Miliband’s reforms raise more questions than answers

Why “party supporters” should have no say over the Labour leadership.

By George Eaton

They may have delivered him the crown but Ed Miliband isn’t afraid of picking a fight with the trade unions. Today’s Independent reports that the Labour leader is pushing for a cap on party donations of £500, significantly lower than the £50,000 proposed by David Cameron.

As part of Labour’s evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the party’s general secretary, Ray Collins, has said: “While some argue for a cap of £50,000, a much lower cap of around £500 would be more equitable, democratic and less susceptible to avoidance.”

In tandem with this, Miliband is planning to reform Labour’s electoral college by giving 25 per cent of the votes to non-party members who register as Labour supporters. This falls short of the one-member, one-vote system advocated by Alan Johnson but would still be the most significant reform since the introduction of the college in 1981. The MPs, affiliated trade unions and party members, who each enjoy a third of the vote, would be left with a quarter each.

But this reform, like the proposed cap on donations, raises more questions than answers. For a start, it creates a disincentive to party membership. One of the few reasons people still join political parties is to have some say (however small) over the leadership. Indeed, more than 30,000 people joined Labour during last summer’s contest. The extension of the franchise to non-levy paying “party supporters” would surely prompt some to jump ship. Such a system would also be open to manipulation by political opponents. The supporters of the ill-fated “Conservatives for Balls” movement, for instance, would have leapt at the chance to vote.

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The decision to come out against big donations also seems rather counter-intuitive for a party that was recently described by John Prescott as being on the “verge of bankruptcy“. It was only big donations from the trade unions which ensured that Labour was able to run anything even resembling a general election campaign.

The brothers were responsible for 60 per cent (£9.8m) of all donations to the party last year, with Unite, Britain’s biggest union, accounting for nearly 25 per cent (£3.6m). But combined with increased state funding (favoured by the Lib Dems), the reform could finally break the stranglehold of big money on British politics.

Miliband’s stance challenges David Cameron, whose party remains reliant on a few lucrative donors, to take on the most vested interest of all. But on the electoral college, the Labour leader has a lot of convincing to do.