What is it with Ed Milliband? This isn’t a rhetorical question I’d really like someone to tell me why he is quite so useless.
Things have been going well for the Labour leader of late, the phone hacking scandal has shaken the coalition to its core and silenced his critics within the party. A recent operation on his adenoids has, so we’re told, changed his voice into one that sounds a little less like that of an earnest sixth former and a lot more like that of a potential prime minister.
Then with the neat facility for snatching disaster from the jaws of victory we have come to expect during his year in charge he has set in motion plans to blow every advantage he has accrued once the conference season gets under way.
Ed Milliband, dubbed Red Ed by the papers for his links with the trades unions now plans to push through proposals to limit the influence exerted over the party by the unions at the party conference in Liverpool next month. This would see the union vote reduced to below 50% and their role in choosing the party leader curtailed, even though it was the union vote that helped Ed Milliband beat his brother David to the top job.
Speaking to the Guardian last week an unnamed source close to the Labour leader said : ‘We cannot go on with a system in which unions have 50% of the vote at conference and just three general secretaries control four fifths of that vote.’
The same source went on to say that ‘Ed wants to do this through consensus’ but that he is ‘not going to give the unions a veto on change.’
I’m not sure whether his desire to bring about this divorce by consensual means if possible means that Ed Milliband is sweetly naive or dangerously arrogant; either way the consequences could be disastrous. The first consequence is that the unions will withhold the details of their three million contributors, making it impossible for the party to contact a large body of likely supporters directly. Then there is the small matter of the extent to which contributions made by trades unionists either through direct membership of the party or paying the political levy on their union membership are keeping Labour from the poor house; if they disappear in large numbers the party is bust.
Whatever happens this will almost certainly plunge the Labour Party into a bitter internal wrangle that could last until the 2012 party conference and beyond distracting it from the proper work of an opposition, biffing the government over the head at every opportunity.
Speaking to the Guardian the unnamed party source said ‘Currently the unions are playing hardball but they need to wake up’, somebody certainly needs to wake up but I don’t think it’s the union leaders. It’s Ed who we used to think was red and he’d better do it quickly.
At the moment Ed Milliband for all his undoubted intellect and seemingly genuine desire to do the right thing just doesn’t seem to get it. Under the guise of the recent ‘Refounding Labour’ consultation from whence these proposals originate a miserable clique of New Labour throwbacks are seeking a mandate to continue trampling over the party’s traditions and values.
Their vision is for Labour to become a party that doesn’t have members with a say in the policies on which it campaigns, just a network of neutered ‘supporters’ who get an occasional email from party HQ telling them how marvellous the leadership is and that they should stop worrying their fluffy little heads over what the party stands for. The arrogance with which this vision is pushed forward is shocking, I know of at least one constituency Labour Party where the members weren’t even allowed to discuss ‘Refounding Labour’ the recommendations made by the paid party officials were simply rubber stamped and sent off.
At the best of times this would be a stupid way to behave leading to the sort of decline in active party membership seen during the Blair years; these aren’t anywhere near to being the best of times, Labour is financially and ideologically bankrupt so by endorsing the conclusions of this skewed consultation Ed Milliband risks leading his party down the road to utter disaster.
The old heavy industries might be all but dead and the public sector might be about to take a drastic hit due to the budget cuts, but the game is far from over for the trades unions in fact they could well be on the verge of a renaissance, making maintaining strong links with them something that should be a top priority for the leadership of the Labour Party.
The union’s experience of organising local campaigns in workplaces can easily be translated into organising similar activity in communities, a point that has not been lost on some of the union leaders of whom the people advising Ed Milliband are so dismissive. This would allow the left to hijack the Tory vanity project that is the ‘Big Society’ and use it to build a strong grassroots political movement aimed at creating a fairer society.
If Ed Milliband can’t see this and prefers instead to appease a remote managerial rump of New Labour fanatics who hold the membership in contempt then you have to question his political judgement. In the short term taking this route might preserve his position as leader until 2015, but it won’t win Labour the election held then or give the party a long term future.