THE region’s Labour MPs have thrown their weight behind Ed Miliband’s plans to shake up trade union influence over the party, ahead of a crunch vote.
The North-East MPs enthusiastically backed the proposals, arguing they would strengthen – rather than weaken – the historic link with rank-and-file union members.
Some also welcomed a greater say for party members, despite the package dramatically diluting the influence of MPs themselves in choosing the party leader.
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And others expressed hope that voters would respect Labour for standing up against large donors – at a time when the Conservatives are bankrolled by big companies and the wealthy.
Only Dave Anderson, the Blaydon MP, broke ranks to criticise Mr Miliband for “naval gazing”, instead of focusing on defeating a “lousy” Government.
In contrast, Easington MP Grahame Morris – who had previously criticised the shake-up – said he was prepared to give the Labour leader the benefit of the doubt.
The leftwinger said: “There are dangers involved and I question the whole basis for doing this, but I will support the changes.”
That basis was the damaging row over murky behaviour in Falkirk, where the Unite union was found to have tried to “manipulate” the selection of its candidate.
Now, in the biggest shake-up since Labour was born more than a century ago, Mr Miliband wants to introduce a “one member, one vote” system for electing future party leaders.
The current electoral college – giving the unions, MPs and the party's 180,000 members equal one-third shares of the vote – will be swept away.
But candidates for the leadership will need to win nominations from about 25 per cent of Labour MPs, double the current 12.5 per cent threshold, to enter the leadership ballot.
In 2010, such a barrier would have allowed only the two Miliband brothers onto the shortlist - excluding Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott, the other candidates.
But the other key reform – to union funding – will now be phased in, over five years, after officials admitted to fears the party would “take a financial hit”.
By 2020, union members who want to contribute to Labour's funds will have to “opt in”, rather than “opt out”, becoming “associate Labour members” for a reduced fee.
The unions currently provide Labour with £8.5m a year in affiliation fees. If only half of the current 2.7m affiliated union members “opt in”, then Labour could lose £4m annually.
Unison, the key public service union, already has such a system – giving Labour a pool of 400,000 affiliated members from which to recruit immediately.
The package – overwhelmingly approved by Labour’s ruling national executive committee (NEC) earlier this month – will be put to a special party conference on March 1.
But Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps said: “Ed Miliband promised to loosen the trade union barons’ grip on the Labour Party. But he has been too weak to deliver.”
THE VIEWS OF NORTH-EAST LABOUR MPS:
Dave Anderson (Blaydon): “We face an enormous struggle to get rid of the present lousy administration, so the last thing the Labour movement needs is to spend precious time navel gazing.”
Hugh Bayley (York): “This will show the public that the Labour Party continues to modernise and, unlike other parties, reduce the influence of large donors.”
Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland): “This is a step in the right direction and shows Ed Miliband wants to lead his party and the country.”
Jenny Chapman (Darlington): “I am happy with the reforms. It will introduce more voices and make Labour more representative of working people.”
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North): “It will be positive to have individual - rather than block – votes, but it will still be important for the party to be challenged and positively influenced by the unions.”
Kevan Jones (North Durham): “This is well overdue. It will make the party more transparent and democratic and re-connect us with thousands of trade unionists. Ed has got the balance right.”
Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough): “The trade union movement and the Labour Party are of the same root and future. These reforms will help to enshrine this most important bond.”
Grahame Morris (Easington): “If this leads to more trade unionists becoming involved in the Labour party, that will be a good thing – but that will only happen if we make an attractive offer to working people.”
Phil Wilson (Sedgefield): “I don’t want Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and BNP supporters who happen to be a member of a trade union to have a say in the leadership of my party. Only those committed to Labour should.”
Iain Wright (Hartlepool): “Creating a mass membership party of trade unionists and others will make sure Labour never again loses touch with its roots.”