Solving the Miliband problem? While the reforms promised to remove a useful weapon from the armoury of Labour’s critics, they also presented an opportunity for the leader to cement his authority over the party and improve his standing with the British electorate. Ed Miliband’s victory over his brother David, in the Labour leadership contest of September 2010, had been secured thanks to support from within the unions rather than from Labour’s parliamentarians or individual members of constituency parties.
From the outset, this made it difficult for senior Labour figures to accept Ed Miliband’s authority, and confronted him with a considerable handicap in winning respect from the wider electorate. A willingness to tackle the question of the union link was thus potentially very helpful to Miliband - and help, from any quarter, was precisely what he needed. In the Ipsos MORI poll published on 11 September 2013 his net satisfaction rating (those satisfied minus those dissatisfied with his leadership) was -38 per cent. Following a generally dismal performance in such tests of opinion, this was worrying enough, inviting comparisons with other ill-fated political leaders of recent years (notably William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith). Even worse, his own party’s declared supporters registered their dissatisfaction in the same poll, by a margin of 12 percentage points (52 to 40).
Such figures suggested that if Miliband had been right to think that an initiative of some kind was necessary in July, he had even more reason for taking that view two months later. The remaining question was whether he had chosen the right target; and the fact that his approval ratings deteriorated after declaring his intention to address the union link might have induced second thoughts. A glance at other polling data, indeed, creates the impression that although successful reform of this kind could pay dividends for Labour and its leader, the prizes on offer are not very significant. In August 1995, when Tony Blair had clearly established his authority as Labour leader even though his relations with the unions were relatively distant, Ipsos MORI found that 50 per cent of voters considered the Labour/trade union link to be too close, compared to 24 per cent who disagreed. However, this had a limited effect on voters, and Labour won a landslide victory in the 1997 general election. Under Miliband, although the proportion of voters who disliked the link with the unions had grown slightly, the same was true of those who were unconcerned. It would be reasonable to suppose that those who strongly disliked the link would not vote for Labour under any circumstances; of the rest, many would prefer Labour to break away from the unions, but were not so bothered that this consideration would outweigh more tangible reasons for voting for the party.
Thus it looked as if the primary purpose of the initiative was to shore up Ed Miliband’s position, rather than directly to benefit Labour – although, of course, since evaluations of leaders are a key factor in determining party support nowadays, Labour was also likely to attract additional support if the proposal was accepted. But this was by no means guaranteed. Whether or not the chance would require a formal revision of Labour’s rules, Miliband could not hope to win without securing decisive union support. There was an element of irony in this situation, and after the leader’s speech to the TUC some senior figures in the union movement sounded less than sympathetic to his dilemma. For them, clearly, loosening the historic link involves some sacrifice; and they could be forgiven for being reluctant to make this gesture on behalf of someone who (unlike Blair or his predecessor John Smith) was proving to be a political liability rather than an asset.
A brave risk, or a desperate gamble?
Since it is weak enough already, Miliband’s position would be untenable if his reform proposals met concerted resistance from the unions. But his move looks even more risky when one considers the likely consequences of success. Under the current arrangement, union support is worth about £8 million annually to Labour. It has been estimated that moving to a fully voluntary system of funding from trade union members could cost around £5 million per year. While recent experience (since the then-unpopular Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives to victory in 1979) suggests that parties cannot win elections if they pick the wrong leader, the availability of ample funds is also crucial to a successful campaign. Thus, if an election were to be held as things stand, Labour would fight with significant funding and an unpopular leader; if Miliband’s reforms are accepted, it would enter the next contest as an impoverished party with a leader who, at best, is regarded as courageous and less nerdish than he looks. On balance, its prospects are likely to be rosier under the first scenario than the second – especially since the Conservatives are likely to pour resources into carefully-targeted marginal seats, and Labour will need money to resist them.
Miliband has expressed the hope that the number of full Labour members will increase significantly if his reforms are accepted – from less than 200,000, at present, to 500,000. One may admire his aim, and his courage in making it public, while doubting that it will ever be reached. It is one thing to hope that many union members will continue to vote for Labour in the wake of his reforms - but quite another to expect that significant numbers will carry their enthusiasm so far as to join the party and stump up the necessary cash to fund its activities. The settled trend throughout Western Europe is for party membership to fall; in Britain, a similar recruitment drive by Tony Blair soon faltered (and William Hague’s plea for 1 million Tory members after 1997 was ludicrously optimistic).
Political pundits are right to regard Miliband’s proposals as the big story of this conference season – whatever their global importance, they, unlike Syria, or even Nick Clegg’s leadership of the Liberal Democrats, are likely to have a significant bearing on the general election expected in 2015. As Miliband probably realised, they raise fundamental questions. Who does the Labour Party represent – union leaders, the workplace rank-and-file, or (as Miliband would prefer to put it) Britain as ‘one nation’? What are political parties for? Even if they are inescapable features of a healthy democracy, why bother to join them? If all else fails (as seems likely), should taxpayers accept that they will have to be funded mainly (or even entirely) by the state rather than by unions, businesses or private individuals? Although some good judges continue to think that Ed Miliband will be Britain’s next prime minister, his gamble on the union question keeps open the possibility that in a few years participants in pub quizzes will be flummoxed by the question: ‘Who was Labour's leader after Gordon Brown?’.
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Dr Mark Garnett teaches on our BA Politics and International Relations programme.
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