March 1, 2014 6:38 pm

Labour backs election shake-up

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Ed Miliband applauded Labour’s “courage to change” on Saturday after members backed plans for a shake-up of the party, passing the measures at a special conference in London by 86 per cent to 14 per cent.

The one-off conference was held to approve changes to the party’s leadership elections in an attempt to make the process more democratic, albeit not for another five years.

At the heart of the changes is a shift to “one member, one vote” in contests and the end of automatic affiliation of 2.7m union members to the party.

Tony Blair had earlier welcomed the changes to Labour’s voting structures, saying that Mr Miliband had carried out long overdue reforms that were “something I should have done myself” while leader of the party.

The former prime minister said the shake-up would put individuals in touch with Labour.

“Ed has shown real courage and leadership on this issue,” he said. “It is a great way of showing how Labour can reconnect with the people of Britain.”

Mr Blair famously scrapped “Clause 4” – which committed Labour to nationalisation of industry – in a pivotal moment in the modernisation of the party two decades ago.

His endorsement provides a fillip for Mr Miliband amid speculation about whether the consequences of his reforms are quite as historic as he has claimed.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, predicted that the union – Labour’s biggest donor – would end up with even more financial clout as a result of the changes.

But Mr Miliband insisted he is overseeing “the biggest reforms to the party since 1918” and a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change politics.

The Labour leader argued that the changes are an attempt to re-engage people who are currently “turned off political parties”, swelling the ranks of the party’s membership.

Under the reforms, the union members would still pay an annual levy of about £8 to a “political fund” – but £3 of this would no longer automatically be handed to the Labour party. Instead, that sum would only be paid by union members who affiliated to Labour.

Mr McCluskey said in an interview with the Financial Times that the changes would leave his union with more spare cash, which it could dispense to Labour – or withhold – at its leisure.

Asked whether that meant he would have bigger clout over Labour, he replied: “That’s exactly what it means. We would obviously have more money in our political fund, and we are able to make donations.”

The unions are also keeping their 50 per cent voting bloc at the annual party conference and their seats on the national executive committee.

Mr Miliband became leader in 2010 after receiving the backing of the general secretaries of Unite, the GMB and Unison.

He was forced into promising the party reforms last summer after a controversy over attempts by Unite to influence the selection of a parliamentary candidate in Falkirk, Scotland.

In theory, the changes will not be completed until the end of the decade, meaning that Labour would continue to receive about £8m a year of automatic payments from union members.

But Mr McCluskey said Unite would hold an executive meeting next week to discuss whether to reduce those affiliation fees immediately, to reflect the fact that up to four in 10 members are not Labour supporters.

Even if that happens, Unite will still be able to make up the difference through its one-off donations.

In his speech on Saturday Mr Miliband emphasised other elements of the reforms, including the fact that union members will for the first time have a choice over paying affiliation fees.

Under the new system, no individual will have a bigger vote than anyone else, meaning that MPs no longer have the equivalent weight of about 600 other people.

There will also be an end to the way that unions could previously send out ballot papers in envelopes alongside papers endorsing their favoured candidate – for example Mr Miliband in 2010.

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