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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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

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