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.

Show Hide image

New Digital Editor: Serena Kutchinsky

The New Statesman appoints Serena Kutchinsky as Digital Editor.

Serena Kutchinsky is to join the New Statesman as digital editor in September. She will lead the expansion of the New Statesman across a variety of digital platforms.

Serena has over a decade of experience working in digital media and is currently the digital editor of Newsweek Europe. Since she joined the title, traffic to the website has increased by almost 250 per cent. Previously, Serena was the digital editor of Prospect magazine and also the assistant digital editor of the Sunday Times - part of the team which launched the Sunday Times website and tablet editions.

Jason Cowley, New Statesman editor, said: “Serena joins us at a great time for the New Statesman, and, building on the excellent work of recent years, she has just the skills and experience we need to help lead the next stage of our expansion as a print-digital hybrid.”

Serena Kutchinsky said: “I am delighted to be joining the New Statesman team and to have the opportunity to drive forward its digital strategy. The website is already established as the home of free-thinking journalism online in the UK and I look forward to leading our expansion and growing the global readership of this historic title.

In June, the New Statesman website recorded record traffic figures when more than four million unique users read more than 27 million pages. The circulation of the weekly magazine is growing steadily and now stands at 33,400, the highest it has been since the early 1980s.