Opinion: Ed’s made a bold move, but he absolutely needs to see it through to the end

As a Lib Dem, I obviously write as neither a Labour party member nor supporter, but I was genuinely stirred by Ed Miliband’s speech at the St Bride Foundation yesterday. It was bold, gutsy and liberal minded – qualities the Labour leader’s critics often accuse him of lacking. The announcement that Ed will push forward plans to change the current arrangements in which all union members across the country are automatically affiliated with the Labour party, to one in which union members will have to voluntarily opt in to Labour affiliation, was brave to say the least. It potentially throws all of Labour’s current funding arrangements up in the air. It contains within it the possibility of huge upsides as well; Labour could very quickly become a mass membership party again, the only one in Great Britain. It’s been described as a gamble elsewhere, and I’d concur with that.

The problem Ed has now is following through on those words. It’s going to be a tough road ahead if he wants to fundamentally change the Labour party’s link to the unions, and if he doesn’t succeed in completing this task prior to the 2015 general election it will have grave implications for Labour’s chances in that poll – and thus for Ed’s leadership itself.

There are two roads open to Ed if he wants to achieve this before 2015. One is through legislation. Nick Clegg has offered to help enshrine the new rules into law, but Labour appears to have rejected this olive branch out of hand. It is understandable that fundamentally changing the way the Labour party funds itself through the largesse of the Lib Dem leader, the Labour party’s very own Goldstein figure, would seem too big a risk for Miliband. Particularly at a time when he’s taking enough risks already, thank you very much. But it would immediately solve all of his problems around the issue. Instead, he seems determined to go down the other avenue, working with the unions to get all this done in a conciliatory fashion. Len McCluskey has been surprisingly supportive thus far, but that could change once he sees more of the proposals and takes a dislike to any part of them (and it is practically inconceivable that he won’t). Most of the other union heads have come out firmly against the idea.

The inherent risk for Ed is that this bargain is tougher to seal than it looks from where he’s standing now, and that Labour thus go into April 2015 without anything substantial having been done on the opt in/opt out dilemma. Ed will then look weaker for having made the St Bride’s speech. It will appear to most people outside of the Labour party that the unions have the power over whether the unions control the Labour party or not. That could be fatally used by the other parties during the general election short campaign.

I for one hope that Ed succeeds in his mission. It would be good for democracy if nothing else. But I hope he’s taken decent stock of just how tricky making these courageous proposals a reality may turn out to be.

* Nick Tyrone is a liberal writer. He blogs at nicktyrone.com and is an associate director at CentreForum.

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15 Comments

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jul '13 - 6:00pm

    The only thing that has changed is the £3 individual opt out-able fee from the Union to the Labour party. The political funds remain and that means that more money actually goes direct to union bosses (on the basis that the number of individually opted £3 donations will be smaller). This is why they’re happy with the move. As Ed is the Unions’ little plaything he must happy as they’ll continue to spend the money on activities that suit him (including funding the party election campaign). So this is a politically smart move which looks like a bold gamble and is in fact solid nest-feathering.

    Didn’t know Ed had it in him.

  • David Pollard 10th Jul '13 - 6:24pm

    Its not often that Daily Politics gets to the facts, but they did today on this matter. All union members will still have to pay the political levy as both Joe and Charles have pointed out. Any money not handed over to the labour party by this move stays within the control of the union bosses who can continue to use it to get their nominees into safe labour seats. Nick Clegg offered to change the law so that union members would not have to pay any political levy at all. Somehow I don’t think Miliband will accept.

  • Stuart Mitchell 10th Jul '13 - 6:25pm

    “The announcement that Ed will push forward plans to change the current arrangements in which all union members across the country are automatically affiliated with the Labour party, to one in which union members will have to voluntarily opt in to Labour affiliation, was brave to say the least.”

    You have made some major factual errors in that description of the current system. Many unions are not affiliated to Labour at all. Of those that are, at least some of them (though I can’t tell you how many) already have a voluntary opt-in system. I know this to be true because I chose to voluntarily opt in when I joined Unison about twelve years ago. Their membership form, available on their website, confirms that this procedure is still in place.

    Ed’s move is brave but in my opinion foolish (I hope he has a master plan that I can’t see yet), coming at a time when the government is proposing to unilaterally criminalise the means by which Labour partly funds its election campaigns, while leaving the governing parties’ methods untouched. This is the sort of thing one might expect to happen in Zimbabwe, not Britain, yet the “Lib” “Dems” are apparently all for it. Even at the last election, the Tories spent twice as much as Labour. Those who genuinely care about democracy might like to reflect on what exactly is democratic about the richest party bringing in laws, with no mandate, that will impoverish the opposition yet further.

  • Stuart Mitchell 10th Jul '13 - 6:27pm

    David Pollard: “Nick Clegg offered to change the law so that union members would not have to pay any political levy at all. Somehow I don’t think Miliband will accept.”

    I’m afraid this kind of thing really does come over as unbearably sanctimonious, coming as it does from supporters of the party that still sits on Michael Brown’s ill-gotten gains.

    Ed’s made his move – will we now see the Lib Dems and Tories trying to clean up their own funding arrangements? I won’t hold my breath!

  • paul barker 10th Jul '13 - 9:36pm

    The Milliband speech does open up the real possibility of getting caps on invidual donations but only if Labour & Libdems work together. There are Labour voices backing that idea but not many so far. Probably the best way to win Labour over would be to frame it as Labour & Libdems ganging up on The Tories. Obviously Clegg cant put it like that but others could.
    As has been pointed out this move could cut Labour funding by a quarter & will have to be agreed with their many creditors & The Co-op Bank, one more obstacle to these reforms actually happening.
    It seems to me that the idea that hundreds of thousands of Union members will join The Labour Party is fantasy based on half-digested Marxism, ideas of Class Struggle & The “Leading Role of The Working Class.”
    However this pans out it looks like good news for Democracy & our Party.

  • Stuart Mitchell 10th Jul '13 - 10:29pm

    @paul barker
    “However this pans out it looks like good news for Democracy & our Party.”

    The way it looks like panning out at the moment is that Labour will, as you say, lose a quarter of their funding, while the Tories and Lib Dems will be unaffected. Come 2015, then, we might expect to see the Tories spending £16.7m on their campaign, Labour spending £6m, and the Lib Dems £4.8m (based on 2010 amounts).

    Please explain how this would be good news for democracy.

    The trouble with the party funding debate is that everybody is constantly seeking to carp at their opponents revenue-raising methods, and impose piecemeal restrictions here and there to deprive their opponents of cash. There is no overarching vision or idea of what would be a fair end result. This approach is illiberal and anti-democratic.

    What is needed is a clear vision of what the most democratic outcome would be. I would suggest the removal of big money from politics, and some kind of equivalence so that one party were not able to spend vastly more than anybody else. Snipping away at Labour’s means of funding is not going to achieve that – though I can certainly see how it might be good for your party.

  • Actually, while people are being sanctimonious, perhaps they could consider whether it’s appropriate for the parties to appoint to the House of Lords those who have made large donations to them.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Jul '13 - 5:26am

    In my opinion Ed Miliband has accepted his opponents hypocritical criticism that trade unionists should have a say where there money goes, whilst not saying much about employees or customers having a say where businesses donate their money too.

    Personally I would have left party funding alone, as I have mentioned on other threads, but either way he shouldn’t be undertaking this unilateral disarmament of his own party’s finances without legislative agreement that binds all parties. This can only be done successfully through law otherwise it will give advantages to the likes of UKIP and the Green Party.

    It also strikes me how low the cap is he is proposing (£5,000), compared to the caps that have been mentioned in the past. In my opinion a £5,000 cap or anything around that would hurt our party so we should be careful what we wish for. I also don’t think we should just be in favour of a cap when it suits us. It makes us look like we are doing this for our own personal advantage, just like people were suspicious of us trying to change the voting system to suit us.

  • Charles Beaumont

    Trade Unions are membership-based independent bodies. As said earlier many have no affiliation to Labour, whilst others do. This relationship is historical and perfectly well known.

    As an organisation they are free to charge membership fees and some of this will go to a political fund run by the union. They are free to fund political campaigns and parties as they like – as long as it legal – I don’t see any suggestions they are breaking the law. Miliband has now suggested and opt-in for the funding of Labour by individual members – something I support but not something the unions should be compelled to do by law.

    If members of the union do not like their money being used for political campaigns they can either leave, campaign for a change in union policy , get themselves elected or start their own union. The idea to force unions to offer to facilitate the passing of funds to other political parties apart from the one they are affiliated to is also ridiculous – if the LD want to access these funds, they should perhaps be nicer to unions or even start-up their own affiliation scheme. The idea this should be forced by law is quite revealing of the mindset of the current leadership

    Do you also propose the same level of control over the political campaigning funded by NGOs such as Greenpeace?

    This vitriol against unions is sad to see but not surprising from a right-wing leadership. Anything that constrains the unions further will need to be reciprocated by personal and company donations which fund the Tories – the funding of the Tories is really smoke and mirrors and I would say they are more successful than the unions in influencing policy. I can remember Labour in Government or in recent policy pronouncements doing much to curry favour.

  • There isnt really any moral or amoral equivalence between Labour’s Union funding and the Tories funding arrangements. They are both undesirable but for totally different reasons.

  • Alistair

    and tht e Lib Dems – where does your money come from – the magic money fairy?

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