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Strong Miliband, taking on the unions? Or Weak Miliband, incapable of doing so? Which will it be?

By Paul Goodman
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Miliband Ed HeadshotEd Miliband's speech yesterday was a triumph for him.  The unions will resist his plan to decouple Labour Party membership from trade union membership.  Miliband will insist on it; ballot his Party and win; decouple Labour from the unions altogether (throwing them out of the electoral college that elects the Party's leader in the process) impress voters as a strong leader - and transform their view of him and his Party.  New members will flock to join Labour, the plan to widen participation in the selection of Labour's London Mayoral candidate will be a success, and the media spotlight will swing onto the Conservatives over their own funding and MPs' "second jobs".  Labour's lead in the polls will thus be cemented, and Miliband will go on to be Prime Minister after 2015.

Ed Miliband's speech yesterday was a disaster for him.  Whether or not the unions resist his plan to decouple Labour Party membership from trade union membership, their political funds will be untouched - which is what matters - and the unions will cling to their place in the electoral college.  Having sprung his cobbled-together plan on his Party because of Tory pressure, Miliband will see it slowly unravel - confirming voters' present view of him.  If he succeeds in the decoupling, Labour will lose masses of members and millions of pounds.  At any rate, nothing will have have happened to make future Falkirks less likely, and Unite and other unions will seize control of the selection of London's Mayoral candidate.  Labour's poll lead collapses and Cameron will be Prime Minister again after 2015.

On the whole, dear reader, I think the second version of events is more likely to happen than the first.  The media class rather likes a leader taking on his base; however, it likes him to win in doing so - and its confused reaction to Miliband's proposals this morning reflects it being torn between these two emotions.  My own view of the plans themselves is they mark several steps in the right direction.  I see nothing wrong with trade unions using their political funds to support the Labour Party, provided their members are happy with such an arrangement.  Indeed, I would rather have unions supporting Labour than the taxpayer (for "unions" and "Labour", also read "capital" and "the Conservatives"). My objection is to it being assumed that trade union members should also be Labour members, (and, additionally, to it being made very difficult for them to opt-out).

Miliband's proposals at least address that problem, though he is silent on whether or not the unions should remain part of the electoral college.  However, his fundamental problems remain, as Mark Wallace's analysis yesterday suggested.  Labour is too close to the unions for its electoral good.  No-one much wants to join the Party.  It is therefore vulnerable to future Falkirks.  He is now set on a course which means expending a lot of time and effort on pushing though complicated changes to Labour's relationship with the unions.  This won't matter much if it is part of a consistent story of Labour reform and renewal - because voters will get that simple point amidst the complex changes.  But if that's the tale Miliband now wants to tell, he's come to it very late and under pressure - which is why, as I say, I'm doubtful that his gambit will work.