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Ed Miliband's union speech: the main points and the key questions

By Mark Wallace
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Miliband Labour LeftWell, Ed Miliband has done his big speech attempting to halt the crisis sparked by events in Falkirk. After a huge amount of speculation in recent days, there is some confusion about the details of what the speech means.

Here are the three main proposals, and the questions they raise:

The Opt-In

"I do not want any individual to be paying money to the Labour Party in affiliation fees unless they have deliberately chosen to do so. Individual Trade Union members should choose to join Labour through the affiliation fee, not be automatically affiliated. In the twenty-first century, it just doesn’t make sense for anyone to be affiliated to a political party unless they have chosen to do so."

Miliband accepts the problem with the current system, but falls short of replacing it. A proper opt-in system would need legislation to compel the unions to implement it - instead he intends to make it voluntary, despite the fact two unions (including Unite) rejected the idea before he even stood up to speak.

The idea raises some big questions:

  • Len McCluskey told the BBC Miliband is not calling for an opt-in to the union Political Funds generally. Does this mean unions could just split their Affiliation and Political Funds, allowing them to carry on automatically opting members in to finance hard left campaigns? Will Miliband pledge not to accept lump sum donations from such Political Funds?
  • Will he break links with unions who refuse to implement an opt-in system, and forbid his MPs from taking funding from them?
  • Will the unions hand over the data on members who do opt in to Labour Party affiliation to Labour HQ? 
  • If union members who affiliate thereby join Labour, will the unions lose their place in the electoral college to select the Labour leader?
  • What is the timescale for unions to agree to the change in their rules?
  • How would this change have prevented the aggressive takeover attempt in Falkirk?


"If we are to restore faith in our politics, we must do more to involve members of the public in our decision making. We must do more to open up our politics. So I propose for the next London Mayoral election Labour will have a primary for our candidate selection. Any Londoner should be eligible to vote and all they will need to do is to register as a supporter of the Labour Party at any time up to the ballot."

The open primary plan that was pre-briefed always seemed too good to be true. Instead, this is a Closed Primary proposal, limited to the London Mayoral candidate selection. While Boris was chosen as Tory candidate by a primary open to all Londoners, only registered Labour supporters will be allowed to take part in their process.

Two questions come to mind:

  • Why is this good enough for London but not for Parliament selections - which are after all where this crisis started?
  • How would this change have prevented Unite's attempt to pack out the selection ballot in Falkirk? 

MPs' outside earnings

Being a politician on the back foot, Ed felt the need to throw in a curveball aimed at the Conservatives. He picked MPs' second jobs - a perfectly valid concern about how our politics works, but not exactly related to the issue at hand:

"That is why I believe that at the very least there should be new limits on outside earnings, like they have in other countries. And new rules on conflict of interests too."

Notably, having talked about "second jobs" his actual proposal is about capping earnings. He should be asked:

  • Is the problem that some MPs have loads of money, or that some have outside work commitments that prevent them paying full attention to serving their constituents? If the latter, why is this an earnings cap rather than an hours cap?
  • Will the income from investment portfolios, such as the large amounts reportedly earned by Margaret Hodge, be included, or will there be a special definition for paid work rather than earnings as a whole?
  • Does this not conflict with Ed Miliband's announcement last year that he wants more people who set up and run their own businesses to become Labour candidates? Or does he want entrepreneurs to abandon their companies entirely when they entire Parliament?

Lots of chewing, not many calories

In short, the speech was much as I predicted this morning. Breaking the union link, legislating to require an opt-in to political funds and open primaries:

"...might help to address his union problem, and perhaps be drastic enough to divert the media narrative. But the very reason they are good ideas - that they would reduce the grip of hard-left unions on the Labour Party - is the reason they will be strangled at birth....[so]...when Len McCluskey has eliminated the viable options, whatever remains, however ineffective, must be in Ed Miliband's speech."

And so it has come to pass. Miliband refused to threaten to break links with those unions who ignore his proposals; he has put forward a voluntary not a statutory opt-in system; and instead of open primaries for Parliamentary selections we are going to see one closed primary for the London Mayoral candidate.

This speech does precisely nothing to prevent another Falkirk. The fact that Len McCluskey is smiling says it all - he's still in charge, and it seems there's nothing Ed Miliband can do to change that.