There is no comparison between the trade unions and Michael Ashcroft

The bogus comparison between union donations and the Tory peer's millions.

In an attempt to divert attention away from the Ashcroft scandal, the Conservatives and their allies in the media are today attacking Labour's financial links with the trade union movement, most notably Unite.

It's no secret that Labour has become increasingly reliant on the trade unions for money as donations from rich commercial interests and individuals, who bankrolled the party throughout the Blair years, have dried up. I first reported on this back in January and predicted that Labour's financial dependence on the unions would become a campaign issue.

The brothers were responsible for 64 per cent (£9.8m) of all donations to the party last year, with Unite, Britain's biggest union, accounting for 25 per cent (£3.6m). By contrast, when Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994, the unions accounted for less than a third of all donations.

It's never healthy for a party to become reliant on only a few sources of income, and I'd be surprised if any Labour figure argued otherwise.

But what is unreasonable is for the party's opponents to then suggest that Labour's reliance on the unions is a scandal comparable to that of Lord Ashcroft's donations to the Conservatives.

After reading Rachel Sylvester's column in today's Times, "In the red corner: Labour's answer to Ashcroft", you could be forgiven for assuming that Unite's political director, Charlie Whelan, alone controls his union's donations to Labour.

In fact, the donations are taken from Unite's political fund, to which 1,291,408 members contribute voluntarily. As Will Straw points out, this works out at just under £3 per member per year since March 2007.

There is no comparison to be had between this democratic funding system and the millions the Tories received from Ashcroft, a man who has sat in the legislature for nearly a decade without having the decency to become a full UK taxpayer. The scandal of either Ashcroft misleading the Tories, or the Tories misleading us, does not deserve to end with a whimper.

There are legitimate questions to be asked about Whelan's apparent return to the fold (not a wise move on Gordon Brown's part), but the bogus comparison between the unions and Ashcroft doesn't deserve to be taken seriously.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition