Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Funding caps and the Labour-union link

If this is true, about the plans of Sir Hayden Phillips, chair of the independent party funding review, then I’m in favour:

“Under Sir Hayden's proposals each of the 3.5 million trade unionists paying the party levy will find their name and address passed to the Labour party where they will be registered as an individual donor; every year the party will have to write to them asking if they wish to remain a donor. A similar registration system will exist for constituency Labour parties where unions give £6 for each 100 members, effectively restricting union influence in these parties where the four unions Amicus, GMB, TGWU and Unison, play a big role. Each union member would be able to personally donate up to £50,000 a year to the party.”

(Although I’m not sure about the requirement to ask for renewal each year – nobody asks me if I want to renew my party membership annually, and that works fine.)

But Luke Akehurst is up in arms:

“If… Blair wants to use the review of party funding to sever the union link with Labour, I am aghast at the short-termism and stupidity. …
“The union link works. It gives a voice in Labour's policy making to millions of ordinary working class voters whose concerns are grounded in the realities and bread and butter issues of the workplace and who counterbalance the esoteric and sometimes extremist views of often middle class individual party members. It means that Labour's leaders are elected by a large, representative sample of those who actually vote for the Party. The only problem with the link is that it needs strengthening at a local level with far more trade unionists being encouraged to both join the Party as individual members and become union delegates to their constituency parties.”

If I’m reading him right, Luke’s concern is for the existence of the union link rather than the funding reform proposals as such. I would hazard a guess that the Guardian report that got his goat was written in line with some idiotic ‘bash-the-unions’ spin from someone in No. 10.

The Daily is, if anything, even angrier: “The bottom line is that if we end the union link - which these proposals would do - then the party is over.”

I don’t think the funding proposals themselves would force the link to be broken; how Labour manages the changes would be a matter for us to decide. And I have no doubt we’d decide not to scrap the link, whatever a few clinically Blairite apparatchiks might think.

If, as I argued a while ago, the affiliation fees that Labour gets from the unions are given in a way that’s clearly individualised rather than flowing through some centrally run union fund, then that helps the argument that these large sums are acceptable in light of a cap because they’re just aggregates of small individual donations rather than just the result of a union baron with a massive chequebook.

Each union’s voting strength within Labour could still easily enough be allocated based on the number of its members who choose to affiliate and make payments under the union’s umbrella. The voting decisions of union conference delegates could perfectly well be made collectively.

As Luke says, the union link would benefit from becoming more localised and giving individual union members a stronger connection with the party. The new funding arrangement proposed here might even help with that.

I’m very concerned that a big chunk of the Labour party is going to accept the (stupid and pointless) invitation to pick a fight with the leadership over this, giving the overwhelming impression that we’re engaged in special pleading: “Oh no, don’t put a cap on our funding! We’re different! This is the way we’ve always done it!” Which the Tories and Lib Dems will love.

Yes, large union affiliations are different from large corporate donations: they are democratic, the result of large numbers of individual decisions. Why, then, the fear about making that defining characteristic more overt?

1 comment:

William Lovett said...

The Labour party - Union link is already dead and has been for years, The Labour leaderhship take the union member's money and run at the moment. These rule changes would simply help to finally bring that into the open.