Has Ed Miliband’s “Clause Four moment” finally come, with his plans to require union members to opt into Labour support? It’s certainly brave, not least financially, but might it be the right thing to do?

On one level, it’s none of my business what those links are. I’m not a Labour supporter nor, currently, in a union. The Brownite left of the party see the unions as a crucial part of Labour history (which they are) and argue this historic link must be protected. For the Blairite right they are dinosaurs, politically incapable of appealing to Middle England. Both sides regard the other as manipulative and almost entryist (and the first half of that is hard to argue with in either case: although hardly unusual in a political party). But the relationship matters beyond those directly involved. Today’s announcement from the leader looks like an attempt to park the tanks in the sweet spot, not just a triangulated mid-point.

The relationship between the party and the unions remains thoroughly intertwined. More than a third of the places on Labour’s National Executive Committee are officially reserved for the unions. Unions wield 50% of the votes at conference, something which doesn’t feature in Labour’s modest FAQ on such gatherings. In 2011, the unions provided 90%+ of Labour’s funding, although that proportion has fallen away, and will fall much further under this plan.

The unions founded the Labour Party’s predecessor the Labour Representation Committee at the turn of the twentieth century for a good reason. The working classes were barely represented in Parliament, and indeed the universal male franchise was little more than thirty years old. If the mass unions of the time wanted parliamentarians who cared about the grinding conditions of the late Victorian working poor, they would have to get them elected.

“Breaking the link” with the unions, therefore, is about as totemic a possible betrayal as can be imagined for the Labour left, which in the current febrile atmosphere around Falkirk includes the Brownite centre of the party as well as the John McDonnell left. But the current relationship feels wrong from the outside for a number of reasons. In policy terms, Labour hasn’t operated as a party that puts working people first for a very long time, whether you see July 1994 or October 1951 as the end point for that.

Unions (rightly) bemoan the increasing privatisation of the NHS in England, which has proceeded apace under Tory and Labour governments alike for decades now. They got a minimum wage for their members (and the rest of us – thanks guys!) but at a low level, and one that’s fallen behind inflation since 2009. The extent to which Labour are less distressing a prospect for office than the Tories has been eroded and eroded, and I would have thought the recent wholesale adoption of Tory austerity might have led to more outcry from the unions.

So what’s best for union members? What’s best for Labour members? And what’s best for democracy more widely?

For union members, this looks like progress. If they support Labour, which applies to fewer than is usually assumed, they will now get a direct and clearer role in the party’s democracy. Those who don’t support Labour won’t see their money spent trying to elect Labour politicians, which has to be better too. If I’m ever employed by someone other than myself I’ll feel much happier joining a union again and knowing I’m not listed as a Labour supporter thereby. It’ll also put pressure on the unions to be more internally democratic themselves: trade union leaderships of both the left and the right often appear like an out of touch elite, more like the old Soviet nomenklatura than true leaders.

For Labour members, they will see a substantial influx of new but proper members. If Labour’s internal democracy becomes properly one member one vote throughout, with newly empowered individual trade unionists taking part, it might just be revived from the moribund and pointless state it’s in now. This might even genuinely swing Labour a little back from the right-wing anti-worker positions it’s adopted over the last twenty years in particular, because some of those non-Labour supporting union members will be to the left, but probably more will be to the right. (2008 trade unionist voting intentions: 38% Labour, 33% Tory, 14% LD, 16% other)

It’ll also free Labour up to challenge corporate power over politics, if they’re brave enough, as primarily expressed through donations to the Tories. When their individual trade union members have all actively ticked a box that says “I want a proportion of my subs to go to Labour”, it’ll be much easier for them to take on those Tory double standards. Those conference and NEC rules should be next to be reformed, too. That doesn’t mean scrapping union places on the NEC, mind. Whatever the percentage of true members under this scheme have come in through the unions, let them elect that proportion of NEC members if they wish, although direct democracy throughout could also be considered.

Pending the detail, this looks like a smart move, albeit one forced on the Labour leadership by hypocritical media lines run by the Tories and Progress. It looks better for individual trade unionists, worse for their leadership, better for Labour members, worse for those who want them to stick to unpopular Blairite prescriptions, and just possibly better for the country. Although I’m not holding my breath for an improved Labour party after the last 20 years.