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New leaked documents show the scale of Miliband's union problem - but how might he solve it?

Labour Press Wordle

By Mark Wallace
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This Wordle shows the 50 most common words in the Sunday media summary prepared for Ed Miliband by Labour's press office, which was leaked to me yesterday. In effect, this is the news that landed on his breakfast table. As you can see, it did not make for happy reading.

The document allows us to see the world through Miliband's eyes. This is the information prioritised and summarised for his attention by his own media team, and therefore gives us a hint of the worldview which informs his thinking.

Out of thirteen pages, a full seven - the outright majority - are given over to coverage of the Falkirk/Unite scandal.

5,175 words are allotted to his party's internal problems, more than ten times the number used to cover the twin Middle Eastern crises in Syria and Egypt.

By my count only one word in the top 50 - "schools" - is not related to Labour's woes, and that is in there due to high profile coverage of Michael Gove's reforms.

The seriousness of the issue for Labour collectively and Miliband personally (the large "EM" in the graphic shows how regularly he features) is clear. The question is what can he possible do to make the crisis stop?

The story has gone well beyond the two or three day follow-up a minor scandal might attract. To run for weeks, there needs to be a deep seam of controversy waiting to be mined - and a clumsy cover-up to drive the hounds on.

Labour tried the cover-up. Only a week ago they told us that Falkirk was a one-off, even though Unite boast of targeting more than 40 seats and Miliband himself admits that there are 14 constituencies in which infiltration of one sort or another has led the party's NEC to step in.

We know - and he knows - that there is still more to come, be it Unite influence in other seats and MEP selections, or other factions using the same tactics. His only option is a radical intervention to take control of the story.

That is why he will make a speech today on reforming the Labour Party's union links, accepting a day of risky headlines in the hope of preventing weeks of damaging ones.

He has a number of options, but how feasible are they?

  • Break the union link: This drastic approach was touted late last week, and Miliband has been desperately retreating from it ever since. While it might make since in an age when the unions represent a minority of workers, and a minority of union members vote Labour, he could never afford to do it. Politically because over 140 of his MPs receive union funding, and financially because the unions are the only donors willing to keep Labour afloat.
  • Make an opt-in bid for the union grassroots: There is an opportunity for Labour in all of this. If he can make union members opt in to the Political Funds, rather than the current assumption of willingness to donate to Labour, he could restore some plausible claim to have a grassroots union base. He could even make them associate members of the Labour Party in return. However, 1) doing it properly requires a change in the law - but Miliband is currently proposing a voluntary scheme, 2) a real opt-in would see the numbers donating plummet, as a minority of union members are Labour voters, 3) Len McCluskey has already said it "wouldn't work" and would be an attack on union rights. The likelihood of the unions accepting a reduction in their finances or even a transfer of membership data to Labour is slim.
  • Hold open primaries: Instead of taking on his union paymasters directly, a clever approach would be to address this as a selection process scandal rather than a union scandal. Open primaries would reduce the ability of relatively small factions to overwhelm the ordinary members of a local party, and come with plenty of other benefits (documented regularly by Hannan and Carswell). The problem is that such a change required lengthy debate to even be tested in the Conservative Party - it seems unlikely that Miliband could successfully introduce it across the country from a standing start for Labour, a party with barely a direct democrat bone in its body.

Each of these 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.

The tangled web of personal allegiances, financial reliance and paranoid factionalism woven by Unite, McCluskey, Watson and their predecessors over the years prevents him from pursuing any of them. Miliband knows he has no parliamentary or donor powerbase anywhere near strong enough to win the fight such reforms would spark.

Even he knows that this time a blurry "independent inquiry" won't cut the mustard, so he needs specifics. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, when Len McCluskey has eliminated the viable options, whatever remains, however ineffective, must be in Ed Miliband's speech.

Changing the rule book to abolish the bizarre requirement that all candidates must be trade union members. Shortening the selection process in the hope that it will reduce the power of big money - despite the risk that it could disenfranchise ordinary party members even further. Watered down open primaries to cover only those selections where the unions will struggle to block them, such as for the London Mayoral candidate.

Those are the kind of options left open to Ed Miliband - and while they might save his skin for a short while, they won't be enough to make his problems go away.