Miliband party reforms an opportunity to take broader message of change to the country
Posted on 1 February 2014 | 9:02am
If the battles fought by Neil Kinnock and John Smith to change the Labour Party seem like an age ago, that is because they were.
It is now more than 20 years since they fought for the principle of One Member, One Vote.
I was still a journalist, Paul Dacre was not yet begun his benign and balanced editorship of the Daily Mail, and the media conventional wisdom was that Labour would never form a government again.
But Labour did win, and win big, three times, and did a far better job of governing than the Tories did before or are doing after. Given how much happened in those three terms, it is easy forget just how important those internal battles were in making the party fit for office and helping us win. And given how busy government is, it is also perhaps understandable why party reform took something of a back seat after Tony Blair and John Prescott succeeded in changing Clause IV in 1995.
Now back in Opposition, Labour must, in different ways in a different age, once again have the courage to embrace internal change as a way of showing fitness to change the country.
So Ed Miliband is right to say there is unfinished business.
The reforms he announced today in The Guardian (link) are, by any standards including those of Tony Blair, bold.
At a time when David Cameron is retreating into the margins of a Tory party shrinking below 100,000 members for the first time in its history, Ed is reaching out and opening up.
There will be debate and there will be close analysis and in the end the detail will be vital, but as I read it so far —
— Instead of unions automatically affiliating millions of people to Labour, their members will have to make a real choice.
— Instead of union general secretaries mediating the relationship between their members and the Labour Party, those that pay the affiliation fee will be given the chance to sign up for a real and individual voice within the party.
— Instead of ballot papers for leadership elections being issued by the unions in envelopes stuffed full with instructions on who to vote for, Labour will hold the lists of those eligible to vote, ensure equal access to them for all the candidates and issue its own voting forms.
— And instead of multiple votes or weighted votes in an arcane electoral college, anyone who wants a say in the future of the party, signs up as a Labour supporter and is willing to pay a small fee to register with the party will get a vote. No one’s vote will be worth more than any other. No one will have more than one vote. And no one but Labour will issue ballot papers.
Alongside these reforms Labour – from Ed down, with MPs taking a bigger share of the load – need to do the campaigning and the connecting needed to drive up membership. Again, this is something we did not do well once we were in government. In Opposition, it is possible and should be a priority.
None of what Ed is proposing would have seemed possible back in the days of Neil, John or even when Tony became leader.
To be honest, none of it seemed likely when Ed became leader.
Of course there will be people who grumble about it. Some will say it goes to far. Others will find a reason to say it does not go far enough. Still more will worry about whether we should be doing this now.
That was true back in the 80s and 90s too. But if we had not changed then, we would not have had the chance to change the country in three terms of Labour government.
This is about more than party reform. Handled right, with a debate which enhances rather than weakens the appeal of the party, it is about Labour showing it is continuing to change and modernise according to a fast-changing world, and showing it understands that world much better than David Cameron.