Labour hit as GMB slashes funding from £1.2m to £150,000

The UK's third largest trade union expresses "considerable regret" at Miliband's planned reforms and warns of "further reductions in spending".

No one in Labour has ever disputed that Ed Miliband's plan to reform trade union funding so that members are required to opt-in to joining the party, rather than being automatically affiliated by general secretaries, will cost it millions. But few anticipated that it would do so even before the changes have been introduced.

The GMB, the UK's third largest union, announced this morning that it plans to reduce its affiliation fees to Labour from £1.2m to £150,000, depriving the party of 3% of its 2012 income. The union, which backed Miliband's leadership bid, currently affiliates 420,000 of its members to the party but will reduce this number to 50,000 from January. In a statement it said: 

The GMB central executive council (CEC) has voted to reduce its current levels of affiliation to the Labour party from 420,000 to 50,000 from 2014.

This will reduce the union's basic affiliation fee to Labour party by £1.1m per year. It is expected that there will further reductions in spending on Labour party campaigns and initiatives.

GMB CEC expressed considerable regret about the apparent lack of understanding the proposal mooted by Ed Miliband will have on the collective nature of trade union engagement with the Labour Party.

A further source of considerable regret to the CEC is that the party that had been formed to represent the interest of working people in this country intends to end collective engagement of trade unions in the party they helped to form.

The CEC also decided to scale down by one third the level of its national political fund.

It's likely that Labour would have suffered a similar loss had the GMB waited until the reforms were introduced. The union will now affiliate 12% of its members to the party, in line with the private estimate made by Labour and union officials of how many will opt-in (and the same as the number that Lord Ashcroft's Unite poll suggested would join). But the GMB's decision to slash its funding in advance, rather than seek to recruit members to the party, is a damaging vote of no confidence in Miliband's reforms and Labour's policy stance. 

The statement also suggests that the union intends to cut back on separate donations from its political fund, promising "further reductions in spending on Labour party campaigns and initiatives." 

The move does, however, make it harder for the Tories to claim that the unions are seeking to "buy influence" in Labour, although I'd expect them to point out that it increases the influence of Unite. 

GMB general secretary Paul Kenny. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.