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.

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Ed Miliband on Brexit: Labour should never be the party of the 48 per cent

The former Labour leader has not ruled out a return to the shadow cabinet. 

What do George Osborne, Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband have in common? A liking for a soft Brexit, it turns out. 

But while Osborne is responding to the border lockdown instinct of some Tory Brexiteers, the former Labour leader, along with Chuka Umunna, Lisa Nandy and Rachel Reeves, has to start by making the case to fight for Brexit at all.

And that’s before you get to the thorny and emotional question of freedom of movement. 

Speaking at a Resolution Foundation fringe event, Miliband ridiculed calls to be the “party of the 48 per cent”, in reference to the proportion who voted to stay in the EU referendum.

Remain voters should stop thinking Brexit was a “nasty accident” and start fighting for a good deal, he urged.

Miliband said: “I see talk saying we should become the party of the 48 per cent. That is nonsense.

"I don’t just think it is nonsense electorally, but it is nonsense in policy because it buys into the same problem people were objecting to in their vote which is the old ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’”. 

Remain voters shared many of the same concerns as Leave voters, including on immigration, he said. 

Miliband praised the re-elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s comments that a hard Brexit would be a disaster. He said: “We have to engage in these negotiations.”

Although he said he “anticipated” staying on the back benches, he did not rule out a return to the shadow cabinet, and urged the party to use its newly recruited member, many of whom joined under Corbyn.

Miliband was backed up by Nandy, seen as a rising star of the party, who said there was longterm dissatisfaction with jobs and wages: “You throw freedom of movement into the mix and you create dynamite.”

She also called for Labour to throw itself into Brexit negotiations: “We have been stuck between two impossible choices, between pulling up the drawbridge or some version of free market hell.

“But the truth is we are a progressive, internationalist, socialist party and we can’t afford to make that false choice.”

Reeves, who wrote in The Staggers that freedom of movement should be a “red line” in Brexit negotiations, said: “I don’t buy this idea that people who voted Leave have changed their minds.”

And she dismissed the idea of a second referendum on the eventual deal: “If people voted against the deal, then what?”

But while the speakers received warm applause from the party member audience, they were also heckled by an EU national who felt utterly betrayed. Her interruption received applause too.

Umunna acknowledged the tensions in the room, opening and ending his speech with a plea for members not to leave the party. 

Having called identity politics "the elephant in the room", he declared: “We have got to stay in this party and not go anywhere. It is not just because you don’t win an argument by leaving the room, it is because we are the only nationwide party with representatives in every region and nation of this country. We are the only party representing every age and ethnic community. 

“Stay in this party and let us build a more integrated Britain.”