Labour and the unions - why Ed is picking a fight

Praised by Tony Blair, who didn't support him for the leadership, and attacked by trade union leaders who secured the job for him. It is already clear that this is a day unlike any other in Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour Party.

It is too easy, albeit true, to say that the Labour leader has been forced into this battle by David Cameron's attack on his party's dependence on the Unite union.

It is true, but not enough, to say that it is still far from clear that he can get his reforms agreed by the very union leaders who he is seeking to wrestle power from. There is a bigger potential prize for Ed Miliband than turning negative headlines into positive ones.

Currently Labour is in the bizarre position of having 3 million 'members' whose names and contact details the party has no access to.

The details of members of affiliated trade unions are held by those unions alone. This gives union general secretaries the power to write large cheques and defend having significant representation on the party's governing NEC, the votes at party conference, the choice of party leader as well as local selections.

Many non-Labour voters are in the surreal position of being 'members' of and giving money to a party they don't support. The pollsters YouGov say that over half of UNITE members voted for the coalition parties at the last election.

What Ed Miliband is trying to achieve is direct contact with, and the involvement of, a slice of those affiliated members. What he lost in cash from the unions could be replaced with the direct support in terms of time as well as money of those who chose to back the party.

This would allow him to claim to represent hundreds of thousands of working people whilst claiming that the Tories depended on the cheques of the very rich.

The issue of whether union affiliation fees should be treated as lots of individual donations or a cheque controlled by union HQs is one of the key reasons why reform of party funding has never been agreed.

It was blamed by Sir Hayden Phillips, the former Whitehall mandarin, who chaired all-party talks under Gordon Brown.

Sir Christopher Kelly whose Committee on Standards in Public Life did a report on the subject in 2011 also said that voluntary membership - opting in - was a pre-requisite of agreeing to new caps on how much any individual or organisation could give to a political party.

If Labour can change that they might be able to strike a deal with Nick Clegg to reform funding and put the Tories on the spot.

So, those are the positives. What are the negatives?

The unions may not agree to do what's necessary - the CWU leader Billy Hayes has already condemned the suggestion as aping a Tory prime minister from the 1920s.

These reforms could change Labour in the long run but they won't solve its selection problems in the short term (though other reforms the Labour leader is announcing might)

In summary, the prize is great, but the problems are at least as big.

Nick Robinson Article written by Nick Robinson Nick Robinson Political editor

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