Miliband's gamble on union funding could cost Labour millions - but it is one he had to take

If the Labour leader is to be a consistent supporter of democracy and transparency, he cannot defend a system that allows unions to donate millions from their members without permission.

Ed Miliband's decision to support a new opt-in system of trade union funding for Labour is by some distance the biggest gamble he has taken since becoming party leader. At present, members of affiliated unions merely have the right to opt-out of paying the political levy (a portion of which goes to Labour) but under the new system they would be required to give their explicit consent. This reform, as I argued yesterday, is entirely necessary if Miliband is to be a consistent supporter of democracy and transparency.

At present, of the 15 unions affiliated to Labour, Unison is the only one to allow new members to choose whether or not they contribute to the party when they sign up. Only two others, the Musicians’ Union and USDAW, mention the existence of a political fund (but do not mention Labour) and six affiliated unions, including Unite and the GMB, don’t mention Labour at all on either the "about us" or membership sections of their website. As a result, while all members have the right to opt-out of paying the levy, it is far from easy for them to do so (just 10 per cent do) and many will not even be aware of its existence. It is this arrangement that allows the Tories to argue that unions such as Unite (just 37.5 per cent of whose members vote Labour) dupe workers into subsidising the party.

In his speech tomorrow, Miliband will say:

I do not want any individual to be paying money to the Labour Party in affiliation fees unless they have deliberately chosen to do so. I believe we need people to be able to make a more active, individual, choice on whether they affiliate to the Labour Party.

But while this move will do much to enhance his reformist credentials, it could prove to be the most costly decision he ever takes. Labour currently receives around £8m a year in affiliation fees from 2.7 million levy-payers, but this total is likely to fall dramatically if members are required to opt-in; one party source told me that he estimated that it would cost Labour as much as £5m. In addition, as Mark Ferguson points out, if only hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of trade unionists choose to become affiliates it will be harder for the unions to justify remaining affiliated at all.

Set against this are the political benefits Miliband will reap. An opt-in system will make it easier to justify exempting union affiliation fees from the £5,000 cap on donations previously proposed by Labour on the grounds that they should be treated as an aggregate of individual members' contributions, rather than as one lump sum. As a Labour source told me: "It will allow us to frame the Tories as the party of big money and us as the party of millions of working people." (Although, as I noted above, the danger is that nothing like "millions" will affiliate.) The Conservatives' resistance to party funding reform will look more self-interested than ever.

Requiring trade unionists to opt-in will also force unions to make a more explicit and positive case for supporting Labour, with the possibility of much greater individual engagement with the party. In the 2010 leadership election, turnout among trade unionists was just 9 per cent, with 15 per cent of ballots spoilt, in most cases because workers failed to state that they agreed with "the aims and values" of the party.

What remains unclear is how the new system will be introduced. Labour is briefing that it does not favour a change in the law, with the expectation being that unions will introduce the measure voluntarily. But in an article for today's Guardian, Len McCluskey comes out strongly against the reform, writing that it would "require Labour to unite with the Tories to change the law, would debilitate unions' ability to speak for our members and would further undermine unions' status as voluntary, and self-governing, organisations." Other general secretaries are likely to be equally sceptical.

There will be many in Labour who hope that they prevail. And they have a point. The opt-in system should be supported as a matter of democratic principle but Labour has just sacrificed millions in funding and one of its key bargaining chips in party funding negotiations.

Miliband has calculated that he will derive greater benefit from taking the moral high ground and removing the stain of big money from the party. For Labour's sake, he had better be right. 

P.S. While the change to union funding is by far the most significant reform planned by Miliband, he will also use his speech this morning to announce that Labour will hold a primary to select its 2016 London mayoral candidate and in seats where the local party has few members or needs to be "re-energised".

In addition, he will promise to introduce a new code of conduct for those seeking parliamentary selection, a cap on spending by candidates and organisations operating on their behalf (including the unions) and standard constituency agreements with trade unions so that no one can be subjected to undue local pressure.

Ed Miliband makes a speech on the high street in Worcester town centre on April 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war