In Defence of Brave & Right™ Ed Miliband

John Rentoul

Ed Miliband 1519091c1 300x187 In Defence of Brave & Right™ Ed MilibandSome Conservatives and their crypto-Tory running-dog fellow-travellers persist in suggesting that Ed Miliband’s Brave & Right™ reforms of Labour-union links will give more power in the party to trade union general secretaries. Iain Martin in The Sunday Telegraph is the latest to make this mistake.

The immediate effect of the new rules is not to change much, except for leadership elections, in which the influence of union leaders is reduced.*

Martin’s case is this:

The amount it [the Labour Party] receives from the unions via its members will fall, with as many as 90 per cent of trade unionists expected not to sign up to Labour membership. That £3 from each member will stay in the individual union’s political fund. To make up the shortfall, the party leadership will then have to go back to the unions close to election time and seek more in the way of the special payments handed over on the say-so of union leaders.

This rightly identifies an area of complexity that has not been discussed, but I think it draws the wrong conclusion. But first let us deal with the next election. Nothing much will have changed by then.

New members of affiliated trade unions are supposed to be asked if they want to opt out of the political fund, and if they want to opt in to payment to the Labour Party. Some unions may have started to ask existing members that second question, and Unison, which already has two political funds, one to support the Labour Party and one for general political purposes, may have started to arrange for members who pay into the first fund to be enrolled with Labour as “affiliated supporters”. But, in 15 months’ time, only small numbers of this new category will have been created.

Therefore, the situation at the election will be little different from what it would have been otherwise. Labour-supporting union leaders will give the party money from their political funds, or not, as they would have done. It is not a good arrangement. That is why Miliband is to be congratulated for starting to change it. But it will be no worse in 2015 than it was in 2010. Union bosses would have no more power over Labour if the changes are approved by the special conference on 1 March than they would if the changes are voted down – except that a process would have started by which their power will be diminished over time.

However, Martin thinks there is a catch to this longer-term reform. That, because so few union members will choose to become “affiliated supporters” of the Labour Party, the party will have to ask union bosses for more money to make up the shortfall.

I can see why he might think so. Ed Miliband was careful to refer only to “affiliation fees” in his speech in July last year: “I do not want any individual to be paying money to the Labour Party in affiliation fees unless they have deliberately chosen to do so.” That leaves open the option of unions continuing to make donations to the Labour Party in addition to affiliation fees. Which is evidence that, though Miliband may be more Blairite than Blair on this subject, he is not stupid.

He wants a ban on all political donations over £5,000 a year, which would prevent him taking this money (and hit Conservative funding much harder), but doesn’t want to rule out a source of funding if no ban is forthcoming.

However, the unions would not have more money available to give to Labour than they otherwise would. At the moment, general secretaries decide how many members they are going to “affiliate” to the Labour Party: they decide how much money to give the party, even before they make additional non-affiliation-related donations.

Under these reforms, the affiliation racket will be put on an honest and transparent basis, which will over time cut the representation of union officials in Labour’s structures, reducing the power of the union bosses. But those bosses will continue to donate to the party out of political funds until controls on political donations apply to all parties.

*In leadership elections, to repeat myself, the power of union general secretaries will be reduced. Under the new rules, trade union members who are not individual Labour Party members will be eligible to vote in Labour leadership elections only through the Labour Party; and the party will ensure equal access by all candidates to those voters.

So the means by which Ed Miliband overcame majorities among MPs and party members to win will not be available to the union bosses’ favourite next time round. The union machines will not be able to send out leaflets endorsing their candidate with the ballot papers, and they will not be able to deny other candidates access to their membership lists while using phone banks to canvass those lists on behalf of their candidate.

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  • porkfright

    So instead they went down the road of the T. lady in more ways than one. Useless incredibly expensive wars, 3000 or so new laws. Real progress, innit? Anyway-don’t tell me about violence on picket-lines, considering evidence which has leaked out about Agents Provocateurs. No smoke without fire.

  • mightymark

    Ah yes of course – when the going gets tough shift the goalposts!

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