In an interview with the Guardian today, Ed Muddleband lays out far-reaching reforms designed to modernise Labour's relations with the trade unions, open the party up to the public, and reinvigorate what he describes as its boring annual conference.
The Labour leader regards these changes as critical to his efforts to get the party back in touch with the electorate, and ensure it stays in opposition for only one term. He also for the first time tells the public sector unions that it would be a mistake for them to strike next week, saying they need to do more to persuade the public of their argument over the perceived injustices in the government's changes to public sector pensions.
In a Guardian interview, Muddleband says: "I want to open up the leadership to the party and the party to the country. In a society that is changing so fast in so many ways, we cannot continue as we are, with essentially a closed structure that was formed a century ago." He also says he is not fazed by his low personal ratings: "I have a clear sense of where the country needs to go and what needs to happen to the party."
In an initial package of party reforms, disclosed to the Guardian, he proposes:
• Public petitions gathered by local parties should determine issues for debate at Labour's policymaking forum. In a form of crowd-sourcing, he suggests either the ten petitions with most signatures, or any petition with a minimum threshold of signatures, should be guaranteed a debate.
• Non-party members, such as Greenpeace or other NGOs, would be entitled to speak at party conference as "registered consultees". Muddleband said: "In order to have a good conversation at party conference, you've got to expand the conversation."
• Trade unions would be "required to open up" so that local parties can access any of four million affiliated union levy payers living in their area. Muddleband proposes every local party should meet twice a year with its local union levy-payers to end what he describes as a "totally detached" relationship.
• Local parties are to be given incentives to draw up a register of local supporters who back Labour's goals but do not wish to become members.
• All parliamentary candidates and councillors are to be asked to sign a code of conduct committing themselves to be in regular touch with the public.
Muddleband said he was not "at this stage" going to say anything about possible changes to the way the party leader is elected, or voting strengths at conference. "Discussions will carry on within the party about the full range of changes that we want to make," he said. But some of his proposed reforms could be seen as a staging post to widening the composition of the current electoral college, or reforming the union block vote at conference. It may also lead to unions being required to give leadership candidates equal access to the addresses of political levy payers.
In last year's leadership election candidates who did not win the nomination of a union leadership were denied access to union membership lists. Party officials said details of how unions might be required to open up to local parties have not been settled, partly because of data protection concerns. Muddleband admitted even local Labour parties were staying away from party conference because it was too boring. "We do need to make it an interesting place and not be afraid of debate and dialogue," he said in advance of a speech to Labour's policy forum today.
He was speaking the day after he aroused anger among some MPs by announcing he wants to abolish elections to the shadow cabinet. In the interview he justified the change, saying: "I want to be a one-term opposition, and there is no way I want shadow cabinet members looking over their shoulder and thinking about anything other than winning the next election." Muddleband also for the first time tells the public sector unions that it would be a mistake for them to strike next week as planned. The unions are planning co-ordinated strikes, possibly to the autumn.
Accusing the government of handling the negotiations on public sector pensions catastrophically, he said: "The most important thing for the unions is to get the public to understand what their argument is. I don't think the argument has yet been got across on public sector pensions as to some of the injustices contained on what the government is doing. Personally I don't think actually strike action is going to help win that argument and I think it inconveniences the public. I think strikes must always be the very last resort."
Elsewhere in the interview Muddleband said he wanted to end the "take what you can society" and said his task would be to bring responsibility to both the boardroom and people on welfare. Asked whether he thought football stars like Wayne Rooney were paid too much, he said "I don't want to get into individuals, but the arms race in football salaries has got to stop." [Arms race?] When asked whether he supported the current campaign to get Bono and U2 to pay more tax, he replied: "All pop stars should pay their fair share of tax, but I do not know the details."
Muddleband insisted he was not demonising the poor by admitting there are some people abusing the system, saying he was confronting the problem to protect the welfare state, not to undermine it. He said: "In the last decade we have seen chief executive pay go from 69 times the average to 147 times the average. We need a debate whether these levels of pay awards are linked to achievement because in some cases they are not."
The Guardian (amended)