McCluskey shows how Miliband's reforms will increase his bargaining power

With Labour more reliant on large one-off donations from unions, the Unite general secretary is in a stronger position to push for policy changes.

Ed Miliband's decision to introduce a new opt-in system for donations to Labour from members of affiliated trade unions was spun as a move to reduce the power of union general secretaries but in his interview in today's Guardian, Len McCluskey shows why it could achieve the reverse. 

With the party likely to lose around 90% of the £8m it currently receives in affiliation fees (Miliband aims to recruit 300,000 of the 3 million political levy payers to Labour), it will likely fall to unions like Unite to make up the shortfall through separate donations from their political funds (which are unaffected by Miliband's plan). And this, as McCluskey signals, has increased his bargaining power. He tells the Guardian that he is not "looking to bankrupt the party" but adds that future funding will depend on "the policies Labour themselves are adopting, and in the context of whether we would give donations that would be determined by my executive and my political committees. It is a collective decision". His wishlist includes the repeal of the bedroom tax, a rejection of the benefit cap, a break with "austerity spending", 1m extra homes and a £1.50 increase in the minimum wage.

Depending on your political persuasion, McCluskey's increased power may be viewed as no bad thing (all of the policies I listed above are ones Labour should support) but it leaves Miliband vulnerable to the Conservative charge that his party is more dependent on the "union barons" than ever and undermines his pledge to take big money out of politics.

It's for this reason that the Labour leader desperately needs a deal on party funding reform. His proposed donation cap of £5,000 would apply to unions as well as individuals, eliminating any danger that McCluskey and others could hold the party to ransom. But while Miliband has removed one obstacle to a deal by promising to introduce an opt-in system, the Tories and the Lib Dems want him to go much further. As Nick Clegg outlined following Miliband's speech, he would like the political levy to be reformed so that union members are given the choice to donate to other parties. After all, as McCluskey concedes in the interview, Unite's own internal polling demonstrates that "a large chunk" of his members vote for parties other than Labour (the union's June 2013 political report stated "We can estimate that around 35-40% of our members voted Labour at the last election, with around 50-55% voting.")

Whether Miliband is prepared to go this far, at least without significant concessions from the coalition parties, remains unclear, but without a deal he could face an unpalatable choice between "bankruptcy" or another trade union bail-out. 

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.