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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Trade unions must change or face permanent decline

Union membership will fall below one in five employees by 2030 unless current trends are reversed. 

The future should be full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns about low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is now a resurgent debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet, as things stand, none of these currents are likely to reverse long-term decline. Membership has fallen by almost half since the late 1970s and at the same time the number of people in work has risen by a quarter. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. Overall, membership is now just under 25 per cent of all employees, however in the private sector it falls to 14 per cent nationally and 10 per cent in London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are members. Across large swathes of our economy unions are near invisible.

The reasons are complex and deep-rooted — sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few — but the upshot is plain to see. Looking at the past 15 years, membership has fallen from 30 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015. As the TUC have said, we are now into a 2nd generation of “never members”, millions of young people are entering the jobs market without even a passing thought about joining a union. Above all, demographics are taking their toll: baby boomers are retiring; millennials aren’t signing up.

This is a structural problem for the union movement because if fewer young workers join then it’s a rock-solid bet that fewer of their peers will sign-up in later life — setting in train a further wave of decline in membership figures in the decades ahead. As older workers, who came of age in the 1970s when trade unions were at their most dominant, retire and are replaced with fewer newcomers, union membership will fall. The question is: by how much?

The chart below sets out our analysis of trends in membership over the 20 years for which detailed membership data is available (the thick lines) and a fifteen year projection period (the dotted lines). The filled-in dots show where membership is today and the white-filled dots show our projection for 2030. Those born in the 1950s were the last cohort to see similar membership rates to their predecessors.

 

Our projections (the white-filled dots) are based on the assumption that changes in membership in the coming years simply track the path that previous cohorts took at the same age. For example, the cohort born in the late 1980s saw a 50 per cent increase in union membership as they moved from their early to late twenties. We have assumed that the same percentage increase in membership will occur over the coming decade among those born in the late 1990s.

This may turn out to be a highly optimistic assumption. Further fragmentation in the nature of work or prolonged austerity, for example, could curtail the familiar big rise in membership rates as people pass through their twenties. Against this, it could be argued that a greater proportion of young people spending longer in education might simply be delaying the age at which union membership rises, resulting in sharper growth among those in their late twenties in the future. However, to date this simply hasn’t happened. Membership rates for those in their late twenties have fallen steadily: they stand at 19 per cent among today’s 26–30 year olds compared to 23 per cent a decade ago, and 29 per cent two decades ago.

All told our overall projection is that just under 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030. Think of this as a rough indication of where the union movement will be in 15 years’ time if history repeats itself. To be clear, this doesn’t signify union membership suddenly going over a cliff; it just points to steady, continual decline. If accurate, it would mean that by 2030 the share of trade unionists would have fallen by a third since the turn of the century.

Let’s hope that this outlook brings home the urgency of acting to address this generational challenge. It should spark far-reaching debate about what the next chapter of pro-worker organisation should look like. Some of this thinking is starting to happen inside our own union movement. But it needs to come from outside of the union world too: there is likely to be a need for a more diverse set of institutions experimenting with new ways of supporting those in exposed parts of the workforce. There’s no shortage of examples from the US — a country whose union movement faces an even more acute challenge than ours — of how to innovate on behalf of workers.

It’s not written in the stars that these gloomy projections will come to pass. They are there to be acted on. But if the voices of union conservatism prevail — and the offer to millennials is more of the same — no-one should be at all surprised about where this ends up.

This post originally appeared on Gavin Kelly's blog