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.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era