The Week in Review: This could be the end of the way we do business

Ed Miliband: How much cut-throat do you have to do before people believe it?
Ed Miliband: How much cut-throat do you have to do before people believe it?
Ian Dunt By

For someone variously described as indecisive and weak, Ed Miliband doesn't half have a ruthless side.

The Labour leader took on his own brother for the top post and won. He came out against Rupert Murdoch when the Westminster village still considered him infallible. And he's shown himself to have quite the ruthless side when it comes to shuffling senior Labour bods off the political coil.

But still he is viewed by the media and the public as a nervy boffin, incapable of making the tough calls demanded by leadership. Every so often he does something radical and risky, like steal the 'one nation' mantra from the Tories, and then everyone acts stunned for a moment before forgetting it ever happened.

Well he did it again this week, but the ramifications of his action this time could, without hyperbole, change the nature of British party politics.


Trapped in an increasingly nasty union funding row after some alleged Unite shabbiness in Falkirk, Miliband tried to get on the front foot with a keynote speech on party funding. The advance briefing was impressive. He would move from an opt-out system to an opt-in system for union members and set up a closed primary for the London mayoral candidate selection. Once he started the speech he went further still, laying down a gauntlet for David Cameron with demands for reform of MPs' second jobs and a cap on party funding.

The ramifications of the opt-in decision are vast. As union leaders were quick to point out, it would mean probably as few as ten per cent of trade unionists would remain members.

That admittance, while we're on the subject, was itself an implicit admission of how democratically illegitimate the existing system was.

Miliband is staring into the financial abyss. As the head of an indebted party, he has now cut off its main funding stream. His only chance at surviving the task he has set himself is to make the party a more attractive prospect for ordinary workers. Perhaps that might involve more populist politics – of the left and right wing variety. Or a new semi-membership scheme that involves a small fee but limited powers to choose leaders. Or he could be truly radical and bring back votes on policy at party conference. It is telling that the idea of giving party members a vote on things is so unthinkable for the big two parties that it barely warrants a mention.

Either way, Miliband knows that his only way of getting the members he needs in is to change the way the party functions.

If he is successful – and it's a big if – the Tories will be severely on the backfoot. The party is unlikely to accept a £5,000 cap on donations because it is so reliant on wealthy individuals and corporations for its funding. But its demand that union donations be included in a cap as one person are unlikely to hold if Miliband manages to embed an opt-in system.

Cameron is also opposing Miliband's demands for MPs not to take on second jobs once in Westminster and to not have any roles which pay more than their parliamentary strategy. Neither of these position will be popular with the public. It's a rare sight – Miliband on the popular side of a political dividing line – but somehow he's clambered into place. Admittedly, there were pitchforks on the other side, but credit where it's due.

If the PM needed a little reminder of the public's scepticism about Westminster politics, he needed to look no further than the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), which was going out of its way to give politicians a bad name.

The body, which was set up after the expenses scandal to put the salary system on an independent footing, decided MPs deserved a massive 11% pay rise to about £75,000.

All the MPs on radio and TV were quite against the move, which was somewhat different to their group pronouncement when surveyed anonymously. The public, which, because of its good sense, wouldn't know an Ipsa if it smacked them in the face, will only take home the 11% figure. It was another PR disaster for MPs. It will be even worse if it passes.

Either way, Miliband's speech offered the prospect of big things to come – fundamental changes to the way Westminster does business. The gamble is unlikely to pay off. He is more likely to come a cropper than a saint. But you had to admire him for trying.

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