Politics as a Spectacle of War
That was the most enjoyable Prime Minister’s Questions in ages for those of us who enjoy politics as a spectacle of war. There was, as John Bercow, the Speaker, observed, a “wall of noise”. The smell of napalm hung over the Chamber. It was the most partisan, pure-politics form of combat, with almost nothing to do with the Real Issues that concern Real People.
It was also unexpected, in that we came to watch David Cameron do his lordly contempt for Ed Miliband’s cockamamie scheme for mending not ending the Labour Party’s link with the trade unions, and found the Prime Minister on the defensive, plainly not understanding what Miliband had proposed yesterday and unable to say at what level he wants political donations to be capped.
On the first point, few people do understand the Labour leader’s speech yesterday, but you would have thought the Prime Minister’s briefing team would have got on top of it. Cameron offered Miliband the chance to amend a Bill currently going through the Commons to enact his proposals, but Miliband’s plan to change the way unions affiliate to the party does not require legislation.
To explain. At present trade union members have to be given the chance, by law, to opt out of contributing to their union’s political fund. One of the uses of the political fund in unions that are affiliated to the Labour Party is to pay affiliation fees to Labour, currently about £3 a year per person, for all those members who have not opted out. Most unions have more money in their political funds than is needed to pay these fees. They use these funds to pay for “political” campaigning, such as poster adverts “defending the NHS”, but can also make additional “corporate” donations to Labour, usually in the run-up to general elections. Many unions, for teachers or civil servants, or those controlled by anti-Labour leftwingers, are not affiliated to Labour but also have political funds to pay for campaigns deemed by law to be political.
Ed Miliband’s plan is to leave the law on political funds (and the right to opt out of them) the same. He proposes a new step, which is to ask trade unionists who contribute to a political fund in Labour-affiliated unions whether they want their money to go to the Labour Party. Which it does at the moment; but Miliband rightly thinks that trade unionists should make a positive decision to support Labour. If they don’t want their money to go to Labour, it would still go into the union’s political fund. Some people have suggested that this would give union bosses more power, because they would have more money at their disposal to give to Labour in pre-election donations. But Miliband is also proposing a £5,000 annual limit on political donations, which would apply to trade unions (as corporate bodies, so it wouldn’t affect individuals’ affiliation fees), companies and individuals.
You can see why Paul Kenny’s point on the radio this morning was so important. “Do you want your 6p a week to go to the Labour Party?” will be, for many people, a QTWTAIN (Question To Which The Answer Is No). Even if it were phrased, “Do you want your 6p a week to go to the Labour Party (which, by the way, it already does)?” That is where Miliband was brave and right: most of the 3 million people who contribute to Labour funds this way probably don’t know that they are doing it. Better to have fewer of them doing it knowingly than to rely on inertia.
Obviously, the wording of that question is important, as is the consequence of an affirmative answer. Because Miliband did not say yesterday whether those who make a positive commitment to Labour would automatically become full members of the Labour Party, or whether they would become “registered supporters”, of which the party claims there are 30,000, or whether there would be a new category of “affiliated members”.
Those are details. On the principles, Ed Miliband is, belatedly, in the right position and therefore on firm ground.
Thus the unexpected turn, in which Miliband asked the Prime Minister at what level he would cap political donations. Cameron flannelled and then took refuge in a spurious argument, which is that setting the limit at £5,000 would “imply” a massive increase in taxpayer funding of political parties. Well, it would only imply that if parties couldn’t raise more from small donations and they wanted to continue to spend at the present level. (An implication foolishly supported by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which suggested an extra £23m in public funding if donations were capped at £10,000 a year.)
Thus, after Prime Minister’s Questions, it was Cameron’s spokeswoman who had the awkward questions to answer. She couldn’t say what level the Tories would accept, but ruled out £5,000 or £10,000. I think the Tories have proposed £50,000 in the cross-party talks on party funding, which broke down last week.
That is beginning to look like a fight that Miliband can win: the party of millions of working people giving Labour 6p a week versus the party of millionaires giving millions.Tagged in: party funding, pmqs, trade unions, trades unions
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