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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage