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  • 1 March 2014, 12:50

Miliband Wins Emotional Backing On Vote Reform

Ed Miliband won the emotional backing of the widow of former Labour leader John Smith on the eve of an historic vote to bring in one member, one vote reforms.

Breaking a silence of more than two decades, Lady Smith claimed in the Guardian that the changes "complete the journey John embarked upon over 20 years ago".

She wrote: "There is a task that John began that has remained unfinished. This was the application across the Labour Party of that most democratic of principles: one member, one vote. Two decades on, Ed Miliband is on the brink of completing what John Smith started."

Also endorsing Mr Miliband's changes, former Labour leader Tony Blair said: "Ed has shown real courage and leadership on this issue.

"It is a long overdue reform that as I said before, was something I should have done myself. It puts individual people in touch with the party and is a great way of showing how Labour can reconnect with the people of Britain."

But Baroness Smith's backing is hugely significant. Her late husband, Labour leader from 1992 until his death from a heart attack in 1994, came close to being forced to resign as party leader in 1993 over his plans to reform the union link.

He wanted to introduce one member, one vote for Labour leadership elections and parliamentary selections, thus removing the union vote.

He was forced to abandon changes to the Labour leadership, and right up until the last minute it looked as if he would be defeated at Labour's 1993 conference over parliamentary selections, only winning the day by a margin of 0.2%, largely thanks to a passionate last-minute speech by John Prescott.

More than 20 years later, a special conference of unions, constituency MPs and other delegates is set to approve Mr Miliband's changes, which will have a massive impact on the historic link between Labour and the unions.

Mr Miliband put forward his proposals following controversy over Unite's involvement in the selection of a Labour candidate in Falkirk last year.

Most unions will support the reforms, but the changes will hit the number of union members affiliated to the party as well as funds.

In his speech at Labour's special conference in the Excel centre in London's Docklands, Mr Milibandheralded the reforms as more than changes to Labour's rule book, and as a once in a generation opportunity to change politics.

He told the conference that delegates should "seize" the chance to change Labour.

"More and more people are turned off from politics. It increasingly feels like a match being played while the stands are emptying. We won't turn that round by saying we're right and they're wrong. We won't do it by singing the old songs even louder. If we do we'll find ourselves shouting in an empty stadium.

"That's why we are debating much more than our internal party structures. We're debating something far bigger: how do we get people back into our politics?

"There are thousands of working people, affiliated to our party, in your constituency. But at the moment you have no way of reaching them.

"Home helps who look after the elderly, and worry about their own mums and dads. Classroom assistants who teach our sons and daughters, and have high hopes for their own kids. Construction workers who build the homes we live in, but worry about whether they can afford a home of their own.

"People who keep our shops open morning, noon and night, but are at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis, and the porters, nurses and all the health service workers who support the pride of Britain: our National Health Service.

"These are the working people affiliated to our party. But too often affiliated in name only, and think of all the other people, not in trade unions, whose voices we also need to hear: low-paid workers whose boss won't recognise a union, small-business owners struggling to get a loan from the bank, stay-at-home mums who ask whether anyone is going to speak up for them.

"I don't want to break the link with working people. I want to hear the voices of working people louder than ever before."

Mr Milibandsaid that not everyone wanted to be a member of a political party, adding that people shouldn't have to pay 45 to have a voice in Labour.

"We won't just be voting to open our doors. We'll be voting for the biggest transfer of power in the history of our party to our members and supporters. Today, in leadership elections, an MP's vote is worth 1,000 times more than each party member's.

"Twenty-one years ago John Smith set out on the journey of one member, one vote. Today we can complete that journey."

The proposed changes have already led the GMB to slash its affiliation funding to Labour, and Unite will discuss its funding arrangements next week.

General secretary Len McCluskey said he suspected only 10% of Unite's one million members affiliated to Labour would opt to stay in if they were asked now.

Unite's executive has endorsed the Collins report, but the vote was not unanimous.

It has been estimated that 400,000 Unite members do not vote Labour, a position Mr McCluskey has said is untenable.

He said Unite was "honour bound" to promote a different relationship as a result of the reforms put forward by Mr Miliband.

"We have some difficult choices to make - but it doesn't mean we could not make up any shortfall with donations."

Unions do not want to be seen to be threatening Labour's finances a year before the general election even though the reforms are expected to lead to cuts in affiliation funding.

Mr McCluskey said he welcomed any move for trade unionists to have a more direct affiliation with Labour, saying it was part of Unite's political strategy.

"We want to get more of our members engaged with Labour at grassroots level," he said.

"We see this as an opportunity and a challenge to actively talk to our members and try to persuade them to give a commitment to Labour.

"I hope we are able to persuade a number of our members to engage, but it will be an ongoing process, not just a one-off question.

"Their response will be dictated by what they perceive Labour is offering them in terms of policies, their work and their communities.

"We have a million members who pay the levy. We will have to ask them whether they are prepared to tick a box to say whether they are happy for some of their money to be given in affiliation fees to Labour."

Unite gives Labour around 3m a year in affiliations and there has been speculation that this could be reduced by up to half.

New members will be asked immediately if they want to affiliate, but there will be a five-year period for consultation with existing union members.

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