UK Politics

Q&A: Labour, Falkirk and the unions

Labour Party bosses are to discuss potentially historic changes to the party's links with the trade unions as a secret report into vote-rigging allegations in Falkirk is published.

What is going on?

Labour leader Ed Miliband wants to change his party's relationship with the trade union movement that founded it more than 100 years ago. The party's ruling national executive committee is meeting to discuss the proposals.

Sounds technical. Why should we care?

At the heart of the proposed changes is the mechanism for selecting Labour leaders, who often go on to be prime ministers. The stakes are also very high for Labour - if they get it right, it will transform the party into a genuine mass movement again. Get it wrong, and the party could find itself starved of the funds it needs to fight election campaigns.

So what exactly will be different if Mr Miliband gets his way?

At the moment, Labour leadership elections are decided by a complex "electoral college" system, with equal weight given to the votes of three groups - one third to MPs and MEPs, one third to ordinary party members and one third to trade unionists. Mr Miliband wants a "one member, one vote" system.

What does "one member, one vote" mean?

What it says. At the moment, some Labour members can have more than one vote - if they are an MP, for example, they might also have a vote as a trade union member, party member and member of an "affiliated society" such as the Fabian Society. Under the current system one MP's vote is also worth a lot more than one party member's vote.

Why is it causing controversy?

Some Labour MPs are unhappy that their influence will be diluted. As a way around that, MPs will now get to select a shortlist of leadership candidates for the membership to vote on, along similar lines to the system operated by the Conservative Party - candidates will need to be nominated by at least 15% of Labour MPs.

So it's just MPs that have a problem with this?

No. There are also concerns that party members will get a raw deal. Union members will be able to pay £3 to affiliate to the Labour Party, giving them - if they choose - the same right to vote in leadership elections as full party members, who pay £45 a year. There are 2.7m trade union members. If just one in 10 took up the option to affiliate to the party, it means they will have a greater say on the choice of leader than the 200,000 full party members.

So what will be the point of joining the party?

Party members will still be able to select general election and council candidates. Labour are also keen to stress that students and members of the armed forces get a reduced membership rate, so union members getting a vote for £3 is not without precedent.

But it could still lead to a further collapse in the party's membership?

That's not how Ed Miliband sees it. He wants to throw the party open to a wider cross section of people - not just committed party members who have the time or inclination to turn up to local branch meetings every week. It if works, he claims, Labour could be a genuine mass movement - something no other political party in the UK can claim to be in the current climate. The party will also get access to union membership lists for the first time - giving it a big advantage when it comes to campaigning.

Will these changes weaken or strengthen the influence of the unions over the party?

It depends who you talk to. The days when union leaders cast votes on behalf of millions of their members could be over - although there is still a battle to be had about voting rights at party conferences, where policy is decided. But unions who choose to affiliate to the Labour Party - and not all them do - will still be its main source of funding. When it comes to election time, they will still be writing the cheques. It also raises the prospects of more union members getting involved in local parties.

Why has nobody thought of these changes before?

They have. Successive Labour leaders, from Neil Kinnock in the 1980s onwards, have tried to introduce one member, one vote only to give up in frustration.

So what prompted Mr Miliband to act?

It all started with a punch-up in a House of Commons bar. Labour MP Eric Joyce's conviction for assault left a vacancy from 2015 in his Falkirk constituency that the Unite trade union - Labour's biggest financial backer - was determined to fill with their own man or woman. The ensuing row prompted Mr Miliband - who had previously shown little inclination for changing the union link - to act.

What's wrong with a union trying to get a candidate selected?

Nothing. Provided it is done in an open way. Unite were accused of underhand tactics - signing up members to the local Labour Party branch in Falkirk without their knowledge in an effort to rig the vote. The union denied this and police found no evidence of wrongdoing.

So why is it back in the headlines now?

Because the Guardian newspaper has published a leaked Labour Party internal report into the allegations.

What does the internal report say?

"There can no doubt that members were recruited to manipulate party processes". The report finds some union members were signed up without their knowledge and there were some signs membership forms appeared to have been forged. Unite has called the report a "stitch-up".

What do the other partiers say?

The Conservatives say Ed Miliband is "too weak" to take on the unions and the proposed changes will make no difference, adding: "All he has done is give the union barons even more power to buy Labour's policies and pick Labour's leader." Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has repeatedly asked for Labour's internal report to be published, calling the row a "a Monty Python parody of the Soviet Union".

So when are all these changes to the union link going to happen?

The Labour Party is holding a special conference next month to get the backing of party members and the unions. If Mr Miliband gets the go-ahead, new leadership rules will be put in place this year - but changes to the party's funding will be phased in over five years.

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