Ed Miliband’s Clause IV moment

By Phil Lewis

Nineteen years ago Tony Blair shook the Labour Party by scrapping Clause IV of its constitution, signalling the start of a new era of progressive politics.  The old left that had seen the Party lose four elections in a row was fading fast.  And in terms of electoral results, it was an incredibly effective strategy.  The demands for nationalisation that Clause IV carried belonged to a by-gone era.  If Tony Blair hadn’t done it, someone else would have.

And now, after two years of skirting around the subject, Ed Miliband finally has to confront his Clause IV – the Labour Party’s relationship with the trade unions.  After they overstepped the mark in Falkirk last week, the Labour leader was forced into addressing the most significant remaining remnants of the old, now wholly unelectable face of Labour. 

By announcing that union members will have to actively choose to pay their dues to the Labour Party rather than (as it is currently) having to actively opt out, Miliband has continued the process of modernisation that Blair kick starting nearly twenty years ago.      

But it’s a difficult balancing act for Miliband.  After all, he built his reputation as a Brownite, and only pipped his brother for the leadership via the union vote.  His father was a famous Marxist academic, and he even interned for Tony Benn.  Blair on the other hand had little trace of real left-wing politics in his make-up (ex public school boy with a Tory father).  It was far easier for Blair to set himself apart from the old left of the unions.  He was a moderniser, a Third Way progressive, and a social democrat who believed in the market economy, take it or leave it.  Luckily for Blair, the public took it.  For Miliband it is far more difficult.

Yet, as his bold statements this week show, Miliband hasn’t shied away from doing what is necessary.  He branded the events in Falkirk as “the death-throes of the old politics“, saying that it was “rightly hated”.  He toed a fine line between the old and the new, stressing the importance of keeping working people at the heart of the Party as well as the need to reform union law.  In moving the focus from the collective to the individual he has made a self-consciously progressive move.                          

It seems Miliband wants to create a sort of sieve like relationship with the unions.  The more politically proactive union members will join up and become fully fledged members of the Party, while those who were paying their dues out of duty to the union will be filtered out.  Labour will increase membership and potentially gain many a useful activist, but lose a significant portion of its income. 

Union officials are predictably scathing about the plans, with Unite general secretary Len McCluskey dismissing the financial cost as too great a burden for the plans to be workable. 

But this goes beyond financial sacrifice.  This is an important step in a series of reforms that has made the Labour Party a credible electoral force.  Before Kinnock’s initial efforts and Blair’s subsequent and more substantial ones, the Labour Party simply was not electable.  They had become the party of perennial opposition, and a party who is forever in opposition slowly loses its credibility as a real alternative.  And so with the left hopelessly split, Thatcher never really faced a credible electoral challenge. (The fact that her own party had to throw her out in the end shows just how useless the left were).     

I’m not suggesting that a failure to follow through with these proposals would see the Labour Party return to 1980s levels of ineffectiveness.  I am suggesting however that modernisation of Labour’s relationship with the unions has been on the cards for some time, and, like Blair’s scrapping of Clause IV, was bound to happen eventually.  Falkirk was merely the tipping point.  The straw that broke the camel’s back.  

And if Miliband successfully follows through he will have proved once and for all that he is not merely a union puppet, and that he may just have the necessary backbone to be PM.    

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: