It was Deputy Prime Minister’s Question Time today, and Nick duly stepped up to the mark. In reply to a questions from Conservative MP, Jonathan Lord, and others, he offered the Labour Party a chance to make changes to the political levy.
At present, members of trade unions pay a political levy on their membership subscriptions, which, of course, goes to the Labour Party and helps to justify the unions’ heavy involvement in the party and their participation in leadership elections. Many members are not aware of fact that they can opt out of this levy. Earlier today, Ed Miliband stated that he wanted to end the automatic imposition of the political levy on union members.
Nick Clegg offered to use the upcoming legislation on lobbying and third-party funding to change to an opt-in system, in tune with what Miliband wanted.
Nick went a step further, and also suggested that the rules on political levies could be changed to give trade union members the right to support other parties.
This is what he said:
If Labour Members want to turn their leader’s words today into action, we are prepared to work with them and use the forthcoming party funding Bill. That is a serious suggestion and offer to turn the principle of an opt-in on the political levy into law, and indeed to give trade union members the right to support other parties, if that is what they wish. I hope Labour Members will take that opportunity, because it is time to turn words into actions.
The fact is that the issue in British politics today is how on earth it is possible that the Labour party—a so-called progressive party—is funded to the tune of £11 million by Unite, which hand-picks its parliamentary questions and its parliamentary candidates. That is why I repeat my sincere offer to use forthcoming legislation to turn the promises being made by his leader into action.
The issue of the day is: are parties in this House free of vested interests—yes or no? I do not think it healthy for the Labour party or, for that matter, the trade unions to have this dysfunctional relationship. I welcome what the leader of the Labour party is saying today and offer legislation on behalf of the coalition Government to turn his words into action.
All parties in this House, if we are candid with each other, have had problems with the way in which big money circulates in politics. That is why I remain a keen advocate of a cross-party approach to getting big money out of political donations and why I am disappointed that the recent cross-party talks did not lead to fruition. We can make progress, which is why we are about to table a Bill on third party funding to limit the influence of non-political parties in the democratic process. I repeat what I said earlier: given that the Labour party finally seems to have had a change of heart over the way in which it organises its dysfunctional relationship with its financial backers, I hope that it will work with us to reflect that in law.
The Labour party has failed and failed and failed to address the fact that it is at the beck and call of major vested interests in British society. That is not healthy for the Labour party. That is not healthy for trade unions. That is not healthy for democracy.
* Mary Reid is the Tuesday Editor on Lib Dem Voice.