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Smith’s reforms didn’t “change perception”, so why should Ed’s?

Ed Miliband with Durham Miners Gala in backgroundDo you remember the last time you knocked on someone’s door and they said the problem with the Labour party was that union members must opt-out of affiliation, rather than opt-in?

I didn’t think so. At least, in five years of knocking on doors, it’s never happened to me. I’ve had lots of people talk about their energy bills, a remarkable number call for the renationalisation of the railways, but whenever people have mentioned union membership it’s been because they’ve been quite glad to have a say in the Labour party. That’s what Labour’s there for, after all: to be the political voice of the Labour movement. Trade unions are there to give their members a collective voice, and there’s nothing wrong with unions daring to presume that part of that representation should be political.

Yet apparently, many working people feel alienated by the trade unions, and feel they are not representative. Moving to an “opt-in” system of affiliation would show the public that Labour’s trade union link was living and breathing, and not at the behest of “union barons” such as Len McCluskey and Paul Kenny. Sacrificing the collective voice of a movement for whom the whole point is collectvism sounds pretty big, but perhaps it’s worth it if you can create a sea-change in “perceptions”. Just like when, 20 years ago, the party abolished union block-votes, and we never heard about “union barons” being Labour’s real king-makers.

If nothing about that last sentence struck you as odd, read it again. For as few times as voters have mentioned the Labour-union link on the doorstep, I’ve heard once or twice about how Ed Miliband beat his brother “because of the union block vote”. And it’s no surprise. Only yesterday, the only newspaper that supports the Labour party said that Labour still elected its leaders by block-vote.  The BBC still thinks the block vote exists at Labour conference – but in fact votes here are cast by large union delegations. In the past few years, these have often argued and split among themselves: like union members, they are not amused by being told what to do. The reality is that since the days of John Smith, block votes have been a thing of the past – both for electing the leader, which is a one-member-one-vote (OMOV) postal ballot of all affiliate members; and at conference.

When David Cameron told Miliband last summer that the unions “own you: lock, steel and block vote”, Miliband could have corrected him. But he didn’t. Probably because he thinks the reality is too complicated for the Tories and the media to give it the time of day.

And yet we hear that the current proposals to reform the trade union link – which could well spell the end of Labour party as we know it – are necessary because the link has an image problem. Do those who champion the unknown, and likely botched, reform package really believe we won’t hear any more about union barons and block votes? Some are perhaps naïve. But for others, such as Progress and Douglas Alexander, who is known to be moving and shaking very determinedly behind the scenes, that ain’t necessarily so. The prospect of an image makeover is just a convenient smokescreen for what Blair was never quite able to achieve: turning Labour into a something more akin to the US Democrats.

It’s time our leaders made the effort to explain and defend the union link and all it brings to the party – because even if these reforms change it forever, the attacks will continue.

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