Clegg should take the high ground with Miliband and shame the Tories into action

If he wants to solve his party's funding problems, the Lib Dem leader should form an alliance with Labour.

"A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money", wrote Bill Bernbach, generally acknowledged to be the greatest adman of the 20th Century (which readers of the New Statesman may not necessarily view as the most worthy of monikers, but you’d have to admit, he knew how to turn a phrase).

It’s a sentiment that I suspect Ed Miliband would concur with. And more to the point, I suspect the public would concur with.  If Labour can show they have made a decision that will cost them millions – and they'd better be sure that the New Statesman is right on that, and that the FT is wrong- then the public will reward them for a principled decision. And how deftly Ed Miliband has turned the tables on Cameron, who now has to make some pretty tough decisions himself on party funding and second incomes for backbench Tory MPs (and if he does ban the latter, you’d suspect a few more letters will be heading Graham Brady's way). 

But where does all this leave Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems? The answer is - facing both an opportunity and a threat. Being perennially stuffed for cash, made much worse by the removal of short money when we went into government, funding reform has been high on the priority list for the Lib Dems for some time. It seemed that the chance to do something about it this parliament had gone – but now suddenly it’s back on the table again, an opportunity Nick Clegg was quick to point out in DPMQs yesterday.

More than that,  Nick’s spotted a bit of an opportunity too; why not, as part of the 'opt-in' system let union members name the party they would like their political levy to go to? For example, the majority of Unite members don’t vote Labour. It's quite a thought isn’t it, Unite, Unison and the GMB posting off cheques on behalf of their members to the Lib Dems, the Greens, the Tories…

However, there are downsides to this wheeze; when one party is in the process of costing themselves a fortune on a point of principle, trying to instigate a get rich quick scheme may not play well to the gallery. In fact, you look like a bit of an ambulance chaser. Especially when you have a Michael Brown- shaped rock your opponents can throw back at you.

Far better, I think, for Nick to take the high ground and form an alliance with Labour on party funding reform, shaming the Tories into action. To quote Bill Bernbach again: "If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you".

Nick should leave the tactical stuff on party funding to the troops and go climb the high ground with Ed. After all, who knows where such teamwork may lead…

Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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.