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.