Labour must make a principled defence of trade union funding

Confronted by the Tories' cynical manoeuvres, Labour should defend union funding as the most open and democratic source of money in politics.

Even by the Tories' Machiavellian standards, the decision to use the new lobbying bill to crack down on trade union funding of Labour is a remarkably cynical manoeuvre. Under the move, reportedly the brainchild of George Osborne, measures will be introduced to include union funding of leaflets in election spending limits and to end self-certification of union membership. At present, only the marginal cost of the printing counts towards a party's spending cap but under the Tories' proposals, the full costs, including staffing and premises, will have to be declared. The new law will apply to those organisations "directly affiliated to political parties and those contributing £100,000 a year or more to political parties" (the unions, in other words), while excluding the Conservatives' large business donors. 

What this has to do with the latest lobbying scandal, which saw Patrick Mercer resign the Tory whip after allegedly receiving cash for questions from a fake firm, is a question you might well ask. As Conservative MP Douglas Carswell tweeted, "Can anyone tell me if it was concerns about trade union activity that prompted demands to deal with lobbying? Did I miss something?" But the Tories, who have been outraised by Labour in recent quarters, are determined not to let a good crisis to waste. Having lost the boundary changes, Osborne, who remains the Tories' chief electoral strategist, has seized a new opportunity to tilt the odds in his party's favour.  

Labour has responded by rightly describing the move as "a shabby and panicked response by Cameron to divert attention from a set of damaging headlines hitting the Conservative Party", while also emphasising that party funding reform (which all parties accept the need for) should be pursued on a cross-party basis. 

But if it is to counter the Tories' dark arts, it must also launch a principled defence of union funding as one of the most open and honest sources of money in politics. Many frequently attempt to draw an equivalence between the unions and the City tycoons and private equity barons who fund the Conservatives, but there is no comparison to be had between the big money donors seeking to buy influence over the Tories and funding from the unions, composed of hundreds of thousands of individual members who have democratically agreed to contribute through the political levy. 

Some Tories, most notably Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow, have rightly urged their party to abandon its kneejerk hostility to the unions. As he wrote in a blog for The Staggers last year, unions are "essential components of the Big Society. They are the largest voluntary groups in the UK. They are rooted in local communities, and are very much social entrepreneurs. TUC research shows that trade union officers are eight times more likely to engage in voluntary work than the average." 

With union membership now on the rise for the first time since 2003, Labour's association with them should be seen as a virtue, not a vice. But unless the party is able to state as much with conviction, the Tories will continue to blacken their name. 

Demonstrators take part in a TUC march in protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

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

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