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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder