David Owen is so impressed by Ed Miliband’s party reforms that he’s donated more than £7,500 to Labour (the exact figure has not been announced but £7,500 is the legal threshold for declaration). As party treasurers estimate the cost of Miliband’s reforms, it’s money that will be gratefully received. Labour figures have long hoped that the former SDP leader, who has previously spoken of his admiration for Miliband (and is close to him and his strategist Stewart Wood), could be persuaded to rejoin the party. He hasn’t (yet) – he will now sit as an “independent social democrat” rather than a crossbench peer in the House of Lords – but his decision to donate is still a significant endorsement of Miliband.
Owen’s stated reason for giving money is to help Labour “rescue our NHS”. He was one of the fiercest opponents of the coalition’s health reforms (as a former GP) and warned in the New Statesman in 2011 that “[if] the Liberal Democrats cannot call a halt to or, at the very least, slow down, these ill-conceived health reforms they will no longer be able to claim to be the heirs of Beveridge” (they did not). He said last night:
This is a brave and bold reform … and one I strenuously argued for as a Labour MP at the special conference on Saturday 25 January 1981. This very desirable change, nevertheless, threatens to weaken Labour’s financial support at a critical time, when I and many others are hoping to see the party produce a plan for government from May next year to rescue our NHS. Saving the NHS is my main political priority, and I suspect that of many others.
To help Labour reverse the 2012 NHS legislation without yet another major reorganisation, I have made a declarable contribution of over £7,500 to Labour funds. Unless there is a change of government, the NHS in England will be completely destroyed by 2020.
In response, Miliband said:
Today Labour has come together and shown the courage needed to change our party. The reforms agreed today are supported across the party, by trade union general secretaries, grassroots activists and former prime ministers.
In the 80s and 90s these reforms were seen as impossible but there is broad consensus within the Labour Party that change must happen. That is testament to how far we have come as a movement.
Lord Owen’s support today is welcome. It is 33 years since he left our party and much has happened since. In our many conversations over the past few years, I have come to value his friendship and insight into politics. I value his support and respect his decision to remain an independent member of the House of Lords.
With Tony Blair, Len McCluskey and Owen all enthusiastically backing the reforms, Miliband has built an impressively large tent (as I said last night). One of the quiet successes of his leadership has been maintaining the support of all wings of the party, while also attracting support from former Lib Dems and other progressives.
Before he announced that public spending would be cut under a Labour government, many predicted that the unions would break with the party and run their own candidates. Others warned that Miliband’s repudiation of New Labour would lead to Blairite resignations. But both fears proved mistaken. Miliband has retained the support of all Labour’s affiliated unions and leading Blairite figures (Stephen Twigg, Jim Murphy, Liam Byrne) have chosen to accept demotions, rather than retreat to the backbenches. The maintenance of party unity is one of the key reasons why he is in a strong position to win the general election next year.