By taking the high ground on party funding, Miliband has walked into a Tory trap

With the aid of the Lib Dems, the Tories plan to deliver an even bigger financial hit to Labour than that which will result from Miliband’s trade union reforms.

After the Conservatives entered power in 2010, chastened by their failure to win a majority against one of the least popular prime ministers in modern history, they identified three ways in which they could tilt the electoral landscape permanently in their favour.
 
The first was reform of the parliamentary boundaries. By equalising constituency sizes at roughly 76,000 voters, the Tories aimed to reverse the electoral bias in favour of Labour and improve their standing by up to 20 seats. This gambit was foiled when Conservative backbenchers sabotaged House of Lords reform and Nick Clegg responded by vetoing boundary reform, as the measure would have hurt his party disproportionately.
 
The second was Scottish independence. Were Scotland to secede from the UK, Labour would be stripped of 41 seats while the Conservatives would lose just one (as the joke in Westminster runs, Scotland has more giant pandas than Tories). Few doubt David Cameron’s sincerity when he vows to defend the Union with “every fibre” in his body, but not all in his party share his commitment. A Conservative MP recently told me: “If we’re close behind Labour in 2014, plenty of Tories will be crossing their fingers for a ‘Yes’ vote [to independence].” However, while the result will almost certainly be closer than most assume, even a campaigner as adroit as Alex Salmond will struggle to reverse the doubledigit poll lead the unionist side has held since the start of 2012.
 
The third was party funding reform. It is here that the Tories are now displaying their political muscle. In a remarkable act of chutzpah shortly before the summer recess, the party announced that the bill to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists would also include new curbs on political campaigning by “third parties” – read: trade unions. Masterminded by George Osborne, the legislation is designed as a pre-election gift to Tory candidates who have long complained about the union-funded phone banks, leaflets and adverts enjoyed by their Labour counterparts.
 
The bill will reduce the total cap on third party expenditure in the year before a general election from £989,000 to £390,000 and the cap on constituency spending to £9,750. It will also broaden the definition of spending to include staff time and office costs, rather than merely the “marginal cost” of leaflets and other materials, and regulate all activity that may affect the result of an election (such as criticism of government policy) even if it is not intended to do so.
 
Behind the legalese, the implications are significant. The TUC has warned that it could be forced to cancel its 2014 annual congress and any national demonstrations in the 12 months before the next election to avoid breaching the spending limit. In a signal of the Tories’ intent, the bill is being pushed through parliament with unusual haste. It will receive its second reading on 3 September and will begin its committee stage the following week, coinciding with Ed Miliband’s speech at the TUC conference.
 
When Miliband addresses the union gathering in Bournemouth, it will be as a reformer determined to “mend” his party’s relations with the unions by ensuring that all members formally choose whether they wish to affiliate themselves to Labour.
 
In so doing, a close ally of Osborne’s told me, “He has walked into a trap.” While Miliband’s proposed reforms will require trade unionists to opt in to donating to Labour, they will not affect unions’ political funds, which support campaigning activity and pay for large, one-off donations to the party. In theory, this could allow unions to make up some of the estimated £7m Labour will lose in automatic affiliation fees by increasing their other contributions to the party.
 
Yet the Tories have spied an opportunity to challenge Miliband’s reformist credentials. With the support of the Lib Dems (“They want to make every party as poor as them,” one Labour MP quipped), they plan to amend the bill to require all trade unionists to opt in to paying the political levy as well as their donation to Labour. Having argued for democracy and transparency in one area, on what grounds will Miliband oppose the extension of these principles?
 
The Conservatives gleefully point to polling by Lord Ashcroft showing that only 30 per cent of Unite members would contribute to the union’s political fund under an opt-in system. An even more significant change, as floated by Clegg, would be to allow trade unionists to choose which parties they support. Again with reference to Ashcroft’s recent survey, the Tories note that 23 per cent of Unite members would vote for the Conservatives in an election tomorrow and that 7 per cent would vote for the Lib Dems. Armed with this evidence, the coalition parties are conspiring to deliver an even bigger hit to Labour funding than that which would result from Miliband’s reforms.
 
In response, although the Labour leader can point to the hypocrisy of a Tory party that believes in limiting donations from all but its millionaire supporters, he has no means of effecting change. As a Labour MP lamented to me, “We had our chance to introduce funding reform when we won three majorities after 1997. But Blair was too busy wooing the super rich.” In the absence of another funding scandal, there’s no prospect the Tories will agree to Miliband’s proposed donation cap of £5,000.
 
With his reforms to union funding, Miliband has sought to take the moral high ground. He has sacrificed millions in donations and one of his party’s main bargaining chips without securing any concessions in return. Now the Tories are intent on maximising the damage. As one Conservative MP said of the bill when I spoke to him, “Labour should remember that nice guys finish last.” If Miliband is to triumph in 2015 against a bareknuckle Conservative Party, he will need to disprove that adage.
Ed Miliband delivers his speech on reforming the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle