The unions give Labour the edge in the donations race

Labour received £3m between July and September, 82 per cent of which came from trade unions.

The latest political donation figures are out and they reveal that Labour raised more money than any other party between July and September. Excluding public funds, Ed Miliband's party received £3,011,858, compared to £2,613,496 for the Tories, and £578,087 for the Lib Dems.

Once again, it was the trade unions that gave Labour the edge, accounting for 82 per cent (£2,470,908) of all donations to the party, with the largest union, Unite, responsible for 26 per cent (£791,281). Back in 1994, when Tony Blair became Labour leader, the unions accounted for just a third of Labour's annual income, but the party has become increasingly dependent on them as private donations have fallen.

While there is no comparison between the unions and the big-money donors the Tories rely on, some in Labour are rightly questioning whether it is healthy for the party to be so dependent on a few sources of income. With Labour refusing to pledge to reverse any of the coalition's spending cuts and supporting George Osborne's public sector pay freeze, one also expects that some in the union movement will begin to ask whether they are getting value for money.

The Tories' largest donor was City financier and Tory co-treasurer Michael Farmer, who gave £525,560 to the party, followed by Stanley Fink, the "godfather" of the hedge fund industry and the man who replaced Peter Cruddas as the party's principal treasurer in March, who donated £151,900.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, whose union accounted for 26 per cent (£791,281) of all donations to Labour between July and September. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.