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.

Paul Farrelly
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I represent a Leave constituency - but I want to delay triggering Brexit

Unlike most of his colleagues, Labour MP Paul Farrelly refused to vote for starting Brexit negotiations in March. He explains why. 

Not quite top marks, but eight out of 11 will do - for the justices on the United Kingdom Supreme Court, who have ruled that our country remains, indeed, a parliamentary democracy. 

Furthermore, they have ruled that legislation is necessary to trigger Article 50, which starts the Brexit process, not simply a plebiscite, nor a government diktat fancifully dressed up as a "royal prerogative".

Last June, my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme in the area home to the historic potteries industry voted 61 per cent to 39 per cent to leave the European Union. Yet in December, I was one of just nine Labour MPs to vote - twice - against rushing for the door by the end of March, come what may.

It was the third time since 2015 that I’d defied the Labour whip (quite modest compared with our leader’s record). The last was when - with the Tories’ true statesman, Ken Clarke - I refused to vote for the legislation paving the way for the referendum in the first place. 

I thought it a reckless gamble with our country’s future, which profoundly disregarded the lessons of the past. Six months down the line, I now realise that, of the "December nine", I was the only one with a Leave majority (though not a majority of all voters) in my seat.

Why? Was it a political death wish? A deliberate slap in the face for my electorate, who have returned a Labour MP now since 1919?

No, it simply made no coherent sense to hand the government a blank cheque before Christmas, before we'd seen what Prime Minister Theresa May wanted to achieve, and given our verdict in the national interest. 

Does that make me – like the judges again, no doubt, according to Ukip, some Tories and the Brexit press - an "enemy of the people"? Certainly not. 

My parliamentary next door neighbour Sir Bill Cash, doyen of the anti-EU lobby, has spent the last 40 years defying the "will of the people" from the overwhelming 1970s referendum. So I think we "rebels" can be cut a little slack for wanting to ask a few hard questions to hold the government to account.

On the face of it, Labour’s continued, official support for the government’s timetable renders today’s Supreme Court verdict of little practical consequence - in the Commons, at least. 

In December, our front bench had tried to be clever, crafting a mild motion calling for debate on a published plan before Article 50, to stir a Tory rebellion. But the PM smartly agreed to the demands, tacked on her timetable and Labour got trapped into riding her coat-tails. 

But at least now, through amendments to a government bill, we’ll have the chance – and so will the Lords – to influence the terms of departure, and who in the future has the final say.

In the PM’s speech a fortnight ago, I was pleased with her commitment to protecting the UK’s science base. Last week, I was at the opening of the fifth Innovation Centre at Keele University’s Science Park on my patch, for which European funding has been vital. That’s been hammered out, until 2020, but what happens further out is wholly up in the air. 

I was happy as well, of course, with the passage on workers’ rights. Ten years ago, I introduced the Private Member’s Bill to stop abuse of agency workers – a Labour 2005 manifesto commitment – which was then delivered at European level. That was aimed directly, too, at tackling the sort of levelling down that, all those years ago, was already stoking anger at immigration in areas like mine.

But these were, really, just warm words for the wider audience. The key concerns for our industry, local and national, about tariff-free trade and access to the single market are still there in spades. And in the 21st century economy, we have not squared "control of our borders". The demand for skills, not least when incomers from outside the EU – the element the government ostensibly can limit – formed the majority in the last statistics.

The reality is that, once Article 50 is triggered, the government will not control the agenda.  That will be in the hands, like it or loathe them, of the other 27 member states. 

The PM’s statement was workmanlike, with no real surprises; but what hardly helps the negotiations are the frenzied Noises Off-style gaffes. For Boris Johnson to liken any French President, on his way out or not, to a Colditz camp guard just stores up more trouble for tough times ahead.

In my formative years, way before politics, I organised international youth exchanges. Every summer, teenagers from all over Europe gathered to tend war graves in Berlin – where wounds of conflict were still fresh, and the Cold War divided the city by the Wall. 

My involvement came from growing up in Newcastle - in Staffordshire, where the German cemetery from both world wars lies next to the Commonwealth memorial on Cannock Chase. I grew up believing that the European Union and its forerunners, for all their frequent frustrations, were part and parcel of the architecture of peace, not just prosperity. 

Those loftier arguments, however, got lost sadly in the bewildering trading of facts and fictions in the referendum. "Turkey, population 76 million, is joining the EU. Vote Leave." Well no, it’s not, but those huge, bright red posters certainly changed the tone of the debate in the last few weeks on many a street last June, not just in Newcastle-under-Lyme.
 
After a narrow 52 per cent to 48 per cent Leave vote, we are now, though, where we are. 

For Labour, on our front bench Keir Starmer has been trying to make the best of a bad hand. Thanks to the Supreme Court, he now has an extra card. But I still just don’t like the way the dealer has stacked the deck.

Paul Farrelly is the Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme. He has sat on numerous select committees, and currently sits on the Culture, Media and Sports committee.