Why Miliband should support an opt-in system for trade union donations

It would give greater legitimacy to Labour funding and force trade unions to make a positive case for supporting the party.

Ahead of Ed Miliband's speech tomorrow on the Labour-union link, one change rightly under discussion within the shadow cabinet is reforming the funding system so that members of affiliated unions are required to opt-in to paying the political levy (a portion of which goes to Labour, with the remainder spent on campaigning and other causes), rather than having to opt-out. 

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. 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 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 not easy for them to do so 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 their members into subsidising Labour.

In recent party funding talks, Labour has opposed an opt-in system, principally due to concern that it would lead to a fall in donations (the party receives around £8m a year in affiliation fees). But if Ed Miliband's support for transparency and accountability is to be consistent, it can no longer do so. (Similarly, shareholders should be required to give approval to company donations to the Conservatives and other parties.) In a post last year on Labour List defending the opt-out system, Luke Akehurst pointed out that workers could join a non-affiliated union, that they are balloted every 10 years on whether to maintain a political fund and that they can bring disaffiliation motions to their union conferences. All of which is true, but hardly represents a model of transparency. 

But as well as right in principle, an opt-in system would have political benefits for Labour. It would make it easier to justify exempting union affiliation fees from the £5,000 cap on donations proposed by Miliband on the grounds that they should be treated as an aggregate of individual members' contributions, rather than as one lump sum, removing one of the stumbling blocks to cross-party agreement. As a Labour source told me: "It would allow us to frame the Tories as the party of big money and us as the party of millions of working people." 

Requiring trade unionists to opt-in would also force unions to make a more explicit and positive case for supporting Labour, with the possibility of greater 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. Partly for this reason, another reform under consideration is to make those who pay the political levy full members of the party, rather than merely affiliated ones. At a stroke, this would dramatically increase Labour's total membership (around three million pay the political levy) and would make it impossible for the Tories to dismiss trade unionists as the plaything of the union "barons". It would be a logical continuation of the "one member, one vote" reforms introduced by John Smith in 1993. 

After the worst week of his leadership since 2010, Miliband needs to recast the relationship between the unions and the party and redefine the terms of debate in Labour's favour. These two reforms would be a good place to start. 

Ed Miliband addresses TUC members in Hyde Park at the end of a march in protest against the government's austerity measures. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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General election 2017: Why don't voters get more angry about public spending cuts?

In 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts. By 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. What happened?

The shape of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pitch to the country is clear. The overarching theme is a “rigged” system, a Bernie Sanders style anti-establishment campaign. 

This started with a clear economic focus, but will build out to public services and state support more generally: first, the switch to under-funded schools, and we’ll soon see the NHS emerge as the primary target. As the shadow Health secretary Jon Ashworth said, Labour believes the public has reached a “tipping point” in their concern about waiting lists and accident and emergency services.

And this focus makes perfect sense for Labour. It just won’t work as well as they might hope.

Why does it make sense? Firstly because there is record pessimism about the future of the NHS. Our poll from March showed that 62 per cent of those surveyed expect the NHS to get worse in the next five years, the highest we’ve measured – and by far the most negative outlook for any public service.

It also makes sense because this is one the very few important issues where Labour has a lead over the Conservatives. In our monthly issues index for February, more than half of voters said it was one of the most important issues facing the country, the highest level since 2002. And it’s always in the top three issues that people say determine their vote.

And Labour still have a lead on the NHS: 36 per cent say they have the best policies of all the parties, with the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

So why will it not work well for Labour? 

First, Labour’s lead on the issue is nothing like it was, even in the relatively recent past. In 2012, 46 per cent thought Labour were the best party for the NHS, and only 16 per cent thought the Conservatives were. In previous decades, Labour was up above 50 per cent at various points. They’ve lost a lot of ground as the originator and defender of the NHS.

Second, while Corbyn is right to claim that issues like public services have more day-to-day impact on people, our relationship with Europe is uniquely dominant right now. Outside a major political upheaval like Brexit or an economic meltdown, there is no doubt that the NHS would have topped concerns over the winter, as we’ve seen it do many times before. We have a special relationship with the NHS, and when we feel it’s under threat it can trump all other concerns - as in the early 2000s, when more than 70 per cent said it was the key national issue. But instead, Brexit tops the list right, with the EU higher in people’s minds than at any point since we started asking the question in 1974.

In any case, it’s not even clear that a real tipping point has been reached in our health care concerns. While our worry for the future is extremely high, current satisfaction and overall ratings are still high, and not declining that much. This is shown across lots of surveys of individual health services: ratings are slipping, but slowly. And this is brought home by international comparisons – we’re the most worried about the future of our health service out of 23 countries, but we’re also among the most satisfied currently. We’re a country-level example of the “worried well”.

And this leads to a fourth point – expectations of public services seem to be shifting. The narrative of the necessity of spending cuts is so firmly embedded now that expectations of the level of service we can afford as a country may have moved for the long-term.

We asked in 2012 what percentage of planned spending cuts people thought had been made. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer definitively, but it is a useful gauge of how long a road people think we have ahead. Back then, people thought 40 per cent of planned cuts had already happened. Now, five years later, we think it’s still just 37 per cent. The idea of semi-permanent austerity has taken hold.

Of course, this could still provide a key leverage point for Labour, if people think there is a way to avoid this future. But the key point is that the cuts are not biting at a personal level for large proportions of the population, rather they are concentrated among quite a small proportion of people. So, back in 2012, 32 per cent said they had been affected by cuts to public services – by 2017 this had actually declined to 26 per cent. No cumulative, growing resentment at the personal impact of cuts - in fact, the opposite. 

And similarly, back in 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts on them and their families. But by 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. 

We are constantly scanning for the “tipping point” that the Labour MP Jon Ashworth has identified. It may come suddenly, and if it comes it seems most likely it will be the NHS that shifts the balance. But there’s no sign yet, and that makes Labour’s message that much more difficult to land. 

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