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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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