Nick Clegg’s offer to Ed Miliband on the political levy

Nick Clegg Q&A - Some rights reserved by Liberal DemocratsIt 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 a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Labour member 9th Jul '13 - 8:13pm

    I am sure it was a genuine offer to help.

    Obviously the writer, though, apparently like the levy payers (and Nick Clegg), is living in ignorance. They levy goes to the political fund. Trade unions are restricted in what they can say in public without a political fund (how about a Lib Dem offer to end that restriction on freedom of speech and association? No, thought not). The affiliation question is about what to do with the money in the fund, not about the fund itself.

    Ed Miliband’s proposal is that levy payers who do not wish to see (some of) their contribution to the fund go to Labour, go to Labour. It’s a totally different matter from the question of how the fund is established.

  • Mr. Clegg, two words:

    Michael. Brown.

    You haven’t a leg to stand on, and your stance – as per usual – is the grossest humbug and hypocrisy. So, well up to your usual standards then.

  • Nice to see Nick Clegg agreeing with me about letting trade unionists opt in to membership of any political party 🙂 It’s a move which might weaken the power of a few elite trade unionist chiefs, but it would strengthen the influence of their members, including the millions of trade union members who aren’t Labour voters:

  • Mark Pack

    Why does this need to be encapsulated in law?

    As far as I understand there is nothing to stop the TU from doing this now – it is just the TU movement has been an intrinsic part of the Labour Movement since its inception and certain (not all) have chosen to use part of their political fund to support the Labour Party. Miliband has said that he would like the TU to change how they do this and have an ‘opt-in’ process – to be defined clearly – before passing over this money.

    I see no reason for the law to be involved to force a Trade Union to facilitate the funding of political parties who, in reality, are opposed to the Trade Union Movement – examples of the dislike commonly seen from members in this forum.

    If the LD want to have affiliated unions or encourage union members to donate then that is for them to do, and perhaps cultivate a more positive relationship with the TU movement. It is not a case for law. If this is forced on the TU Movement I would like to see the same laws applied to companies and that all political donations have to be put to the vote, with the pension funds consulting the members of the fund… thought not!

    Of course, we see Nick, as normal, attacking the relationship between the Unions and the Labour Party but failing to mention the obscure funding of the Tory Party by rich individuals. As organisation the U are already governed by strict rules – and the 11 million that Clegg talks about is not as he implies in his speech (see also the thread on how the general public is completely misinformed on things – mainly due to the misuse of information).

    This speech is not helpful at all in bringing the Labour Party to the table, the tone is very poor, and it is saddening to see Clegg not speaking about the Tory Party in the same condescending and moralistic tone (Michael Brown cough cough). Perhaps you could ask Clegg to ask Cameron when the Tories will be repaying the Asil Nadir money as promised……no though not!

  • David Pollard 9th Jul '13 - 9:38pm

    The levy seems a bit like a scheme I came across in business, whereby businesses paid into a political levy which was then allocated to politicial parties. As I found out, the money only ever went to the Conservatives. Labour member’s explanation does not make sense. perhaps they should have another go.

  • David Pollard

    They are not the same – the members know that the fund exists, that the money only goes to Labour and there is an option to ‘opt-out’. Far more clarity than your ‘slush’ fund.

    There is nothing hidden about what they do – it is all in the accounts that have to be submitted to the electoral commission.

    Whether it is right or wrong often depends on your political persuasion and Miliband has taken a brave step in proposing something that could cut the funding of his party substantially but, at the same time, boost association with the party. Whether he will succeed only time will tell but I support his move as it had to come at some point. I wish him luck to be honest.

    Why not turn the focus on the much more opaque funding of your Coalition friends’ party – and ask them what they are doing about it? Where is the similar move from the Tories.?

  • “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.”

    Apart from the fact that Clegg is very obviously using the language of the Tory party here (who frequently refer to the TUs as vested interests) he hasn’t exactly used the language well. Personally, I’m all in favour of any party at the beck and call of organisations with a vested interest in British society. Anyway, if I want a Tory I’ll vote for one, not an impersonator.

  • I was until very recently a member of a trade union affiliated to the Labour party and with a political fund. I am also a Lib Dem. I wanted to comment just to explain how I opted out of the political fund (and therefore to donating to Labour). First I had to find a page on the internet, not on my union’s site, that explained what I had to do. I then had to write a letter (if it is possible to email my union I cannot find any way of doing it) asking to opt out. I was then sent a many-times-photocopied sheet that I had to fill out along with a lot of bumpf explaining why the fund was all jolly good. I then sent that in. I did not receive any confirmation that I had been removed from the fund, and didn’t notice my contributions dropping by a noticeable amount.

    The system simply must change to one that is opt-in; it is simply not right that 100,000s if not millions of ppl are contributing to the Labour party without any real awareness that they are doing so.

    One question I have however after listening to EdM’s speech: there are the affiliation fees from individual trade union members (£3 per year, I believe) but there are also the mega donations from the unions, separate from the affiliation fees; under Ed’s new system, would unions still be able to donate millions to the party?

  • Bcrombie: I think you confuse trade union leaders with trade unionists themselves. Even the majority of Unite’s members are not (on Unite’s own figures) Labour voters.

    It’s the trade union leaders who are forcing on their members the choice of Labour only – rather like Henry T Ford – you can have whatever colour of car you like as long as it’s black, and you can have whatever political party you like as long as it’s Labour.

    Letting trade union members choose directly themselves which party they wish to support, on an even playing field, isn’t being hostile to trade unionists. It’s only being hostile to those trade union leaders who don’t want their members to have an equal choice and over-ride the views of the millions of their members who aren’t Labour voters.

  • You have to remember that the Labour Party was established by the Trade Unions because they felt that the Liberals could not be trusted to support the interests of working people – in hindsight probably the wisest and most perceptive decision that the unions ever made!

  • Mark Pack

    I am not confusing anything….

    The trade unions are set up with the clear understanding that the political donations are made only to the Labour Party, and to be honest there is not doubts surely to the membership who the trade unions are more likely to support? It is irrelevant who the members vote for. I am sure I am a shareholder (through my pension) in companies that support the Tory Party but I have no say in that – perhaps the majority of ‘shareholders’ feel the same – who knows, nobody asks.

    There is now no compulsion to join a union and if the person is that bothered they can opt-out. This process to my view could be improved and the proposals move in that direction. Also, the leaders are elected to represent their members – your own party does not allow the members to influence all the decisions of the leadership…or am I mistaken?

    I do not at all see why an organisation should be forced by law to facilitate support to a party if it does not want to. Of course, if you believe that then perhaps we should look at the way companies fund political parties as eel?

  • Stuart

    But you can opt-out. Can you tell me how I ensure none of my pension is being used to support political donations to the Tories, or Lib Dems…?

    Also, the unions are organisations with huge numbers of members and they have rules they have to follow on donations – if the members don’t like it then they can leave. You can leave the union if you want but if you are a member you follow their rules. If you want to change their rules then get elected to office and propose changes. You could also propose affiliation to the LD

    How do you feel about the millions donated to the Tories by private individuals and companies/hedge funds. It looks from where I stand the Tories have given more back to their supporters than Labour have to the unions

  • Ah, looks like the FT had the same idea as me: Looks like this plan will just mean same old, same old.

  • Stuart

    Nice unbiased piece there!

    What is the problem in an organisation being politically active and using those funds to influence things in their direction? All donors to political parties and lobbyists do the same. It is all transparent through the electoral commission. If you change the rules for the unions then are you going to be so tough on the Tories – this is a question noone has yet answered

    Are you saying that Greenpeace is in the hands of ‘Green Barons’ and that we should prevent them from making political use of their donations?

    If you are a member of the union and are so unhappy then pull out – noone makes you join and you seem to know what happens to your membership fees. Perhaps you can join a non-affiliated union or, here is an idea, start a LD affiliated union

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jul '13 - 11:45pm

    I strongly disagree with the government capping how much people can donate to political parties. People should be able to donate their money to whoever they like and if you cap political donations it will just lead to more self financed political campaigning and more money going towards single issue pressure groups that can help certain political parties (for instance Scottish Independence or EU campaigns).

    Making things complicated will just waste more people’s time and reduce economic productivity.

  • I think there is a lot to be said for the Unison “opt-in” model for Labour Party affiliation. Why should the only way a trade unionist can stop donating to Labour, be by withdrawing from the political levy.

  • David

    I think the steps taken are the right thing to do to help make political party spending more transparent and it should be welcomed.

    As to the point you make though, from the union’s point of view why should it not be the only way? There is no compulsion to join a Union (in fact in some companies there it is frowned upon-another question) and if you don’t like its rules then leave!

    There is no need to have the law involved as we could then, rightly ask, why not introduce laws for other organisations that use money for political spending. If I join Greenpeace but don’t want my money spent on anti-GM propaganda do I have the right to opt out? Perhaps the answer is not to join in the first place.

    As I keep saying, it is not compulsory to koi, but if you want the support of the union then you have to follow the rules which are democratically decided on and there is an elected leadership to implement them. If you don’t like it set up your own union?

    There is a lot of irrationality and hypocrisy when we talk about unions – mainly because they are seen to support on political party-but when you ask about applying the same regulations and rules to other, similar political pressure groups with paid memberships it all goes quiet

    Perhaps you could start with your own party where the leadership has to implement only those decisions approved by a vote of the membership at Conference… NHS reforms, tuition fees etc?

  • Richard Harris 10th Jul '13 - 6:39am

    What has Clegg got to say about financial backers of other parties? Does he really think there is no correlation between massive Tory backers and policy decisions and/or candidate selection. Pull the other one.

  • Eddie Sammon – So you’re quite happy for the UK to go down the US “megabucks” road to funding politics. Even many in America admit their system is broken in that respect!

    I fear Nick Clegg’s comments show bias, again, and it would really be very useful if he were taken off these constitutional matters. Someone on another thread here was commenting the other day on his spectacular lack of success in that role. He is unlikely to achieve a balanced outcome with this approach. It was unfortunate that Falkirk hit the headlines in the way it did, as it has allowed Cameron and the Tories to divert attention from their funding issues. I am sure we should be looking very carefully at UKIP funding too.

  • Richard Harris – we have seen it in recent years in the Lib Dems with various donors receiving peerages etc.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jul '13 - 8:39am

    Tim, I have made perfectly clear my opinion on this subject. I think a cap on party donations would have unintended consequences and be bad for society. Cash for policies is wrong, but donations are fine.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jul '13 - 8:52am

    To further my point: if you reduce the amount of money political parties have then suddenly individuals will be expected to fund more of their own campaign expenses so parliamentary diversity would go through the floor.

    In the politest way possible I would like to say that I recommend people think more about unintended consequences before they ask to ban things.

  • nuclear cockroach 10th Jul '13 - 9:16am

    Surely the fairest would be to allow only individuals – neither trades unions, nor businesses, nor charities, nor any other body incorporated in any form whatsoever – to donate to political parties? And those contributions should be capped. If a body wished to facilitate donations by collecting them, that’s fair enough, but to whichever party the individual contributor wished, not one chosen by the body.

  • Eddie – I think if we want parties to continue, and the public, asked that question, would not (although would not have a workable democratic alternative either), the only way forward is a higher proportion of party spending to be state funded. The public would resist that. Your last sentence, about unintended consequences, needs to be applied seriously by you to your ideas here. You have recently had a change of mind on “diversity” issues. I suggest you consider the same in the light of my previous comment.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jul '13 - 9:57am

    I do change my mind on things, but it is better to do that than to have an inflexible mind or be afraid to voice an opinion in the first place.

    I still think it is impossible to take the big money out of politics because there are plenty of other ways to financially support a campaign without donating to a party.

    Trying to ridicule me for changing my mind on something is no way to have a debate about party funding.

  • Very interesting watching the straw man building going on in this thread who seem to have chosen to ignore that Nick Clegg said this: “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.”

  • Simon – You say “straw man” (too many people resort to this catch-all) – and you make reference to Nick Clegg’s words. I am not aware of anything Nick has specifically done to clean up Lib Dem problems he is alluding to in that statement. Others here have cited Michael Brown, which is one of the biggest public black marks on our record. As far as I know, although willing to be corrected, Nick has not done anything in any way to rectify this. In fact, by taking us into Coalition and sacrificing the Short money, he has indirectly made it less likely that the Lib Dems can do so.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Jul '13 - 12:05pm


    Others here have cited Michael Brown, which is one of the biggest public black marks on our record.

    OK, but what are we meant to do about it?

    Comment on this issue almost always suggests we should pay back the money. Fine, so next time there’s a general election, we won’t bother putting up candidates because instead the money that would have been used for our campaign is being spent on paying back the Michael Brown money. How would the public feel about that?

    One of the things that always annoys me is comments from the general public which assume we have a duty to put up candidates and fight elections as if we are some sort of state service. We aren’t. We can only do what we do if there are people who volunteer to fund it and to do it.

    Members of the public tend to react in horror to the idea of state funding of political parties, and they also tend to react in horror to the idea of joining one. Mostly they just haven’t thought this through, they seem to have this idea that because we’re “politicians” we’re all rich and can just pay for this ourselves from our own funds. I remember once when I was delivering Focus chatting to a postman who was working the same road. We were talking about the perils of dogs, awkward letter-boxes etc, when at some point I said something like “well at least you get paid for it”. The man almost dropped the letters he had in his hand in shock. It just had not occurred to him that party political literature was delivered by volunteers, that there would be people who feel so strongly about it that they do it without being paid for it.

    The problem is we have all fallen for the idea that success in politics involves looking slick and professional. So instead of making a big thing about the local party association being a bunch of local people who have got together to further general aims and objective, and work with others in other areas who share similar aims and objectives, we employ glossy ad-man’s techniques to make us look like a big corporation. We are told by our party leaders, and by the ad-men who advise them, that this is “modern”. It goes along with the line our leadership has constantly forced on us that we must go on and on about being “in government” because people will be mightily impressed by that, and it will win us votes. OK, so far it seems mainly to have lost us votes, but our leaders and the ad-men who advise them assure us those votes lost were just worthless “protest” votes “borrowed from Labour”, and hankering after them and the presentation techniques that won them is just being old-fashioned and not interested in power.

    As usual, my recommendation is that we are honest. I think a public campaign from our party which makes central the idea that we are a volunteer organisation and which places emphasis on the importance of its members rather than on the person of its leader might be a jolly good idea.

  • Steve Griffiths 10th Jul '13 - 12:45pm

    Mark Pack

    “Nice to see Nick Clegg agreeing with me about letting trade unionists opt in to membership of any political party ”

    Then I find myself in agreement with you and, surprisingly for once, in agreement with Nick Clegg. But there is nothing new in this for ALDTU or indeed for ALTU that proceeded it. See;

  • @Tim13 Michael Brown is an embarrassment but the money was accepted in good faith and the due dillegence the party carred out at the time (before Nick was leader) has stood up to repeated Electoral Commission inquiries. Brown didn’t buy himself a seat in the lords or any obvious influence over policy and his political donations certainly didn’t stop justice being done regarding his crimes.

  • Stuart Mitchell 10th Jul '13 - 6:33pm

    “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… Many members are not aware of fact that they can opt out of this levy.”

    Or :-

    “At present, customers of companies like M&S, Next and BHS pay a political levy on their purchases, which, of course, goes to the Conservative Party and helps to justify big business’ heavy involvement in the party…”

    When is Nick Clegg going to offer an opt-out to them?

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