Miliband's party funding sacrifice has opened the door to real reform

If Labour can hold its nerve, Miliband's plan could finally get big money out of British politics.

The GMB’s decision to slash its affiliation fees to Labour – by top-down decision rather than by asking their members – certainly might seem to support George Eaton’s fears about Ed Miliband’s proposed changes to the union link. Eaton fears the Tories and Lib Dems may even impose statutory change on us. A different view would be that Miliband has started a process which, if we can hold our nerve, could finally get 'big money' out of British politics.

Every attempt to reform party funding has been blocked by two golden rules. First, change must be agreed, not unilaterally imposed by the governing party. Labour observed this scrupulously during its long years of huge majorities. Second, no one party would weaken its own position without getting concessions from the others. Between them, Paul Kenny and Ed Miliband have torn up the second rule.  It’s this which opens the door to change.

Contrary to briefings from Nick Clegg’s office, the recent cross-party talks did not fail, let alone collapse due to Labour intransigence. Texts of a possible draft agreement on principles were still being exchanged when Clegg unilaterally ended the talks. His dishonest decision to switch attention to union funding is a political tactic which suits both the Lib Dems and the Tories. And it may well be that they will try to use the Lobbying Bill to impose changes on Labour’s relations with the unions.

But consider Labour’s current position. Labour is committed to getting big money out of politics. (So, according to the Coalition Agreement, are the Tories and the Lib Dems). Trade union money has very different origins to that of wealthy individuals but discretionary union donations must be seen as big money. Today’s events have surely driven home that union leaders are among the few hundred powerful individuals who effectively determine how much money British political parties get and what they get it for. With his recent initiative, Ed Miliband has said he wants members of union political funds to positively affirm that they want their money to go to Labour. But for over a year he has been also saying he is willing to limit discretionary donations from union general secretaries or political committees – as part of an overall agreement to limit donations from individuals, companies and unions to £5,000 per annum. In other words, Labour has a tough and credible position which really would take big money out of politics.

This leaves the Tories defending, in principle, big private donations as the best way of funding democracy. Their idea of a limit is £50,000 per annum, or £250,000 per individual every Parliament, which only goes to show that the Tory idea of what constitutes big money is completely out of touch with the average voter. And most voters find the Tories' immersion in the vested interests of private donors far more offensive than Labour’s public and historic union links. While Labour’s union link is at root political and will survive whatever the financial links, Conservative dependence on private finance goes to the core of how its supporters see power and influence operating in government. Labour should ruthlessly expose this central weakness in the Tories’ DNA.

It’s always been assumed - in the Hayden Phillips negotiations, the Kelly Report and the cross-party talks – that donations could only be capped if large sums of public money came in to compensate. The unpopularity of that idea has been the reason parties have used to keep things as they are.

We now have a chance to change that logic and campaign straight forwardly for an unconditional £5,000 donation limit. To win the politics, the risk has to be taken that we give up big money and make do with much less. This logjam has blocked reform for too long and Ed Miliband’s initiative has changed the rules of the game. Maybe the public would be more open to support finance for a functioning democracy if they first knew we were determined to wean ourselves off big money and all it represents.

Meanwhile, if the coalition do impose change on Labour they will have set aside the first golden rule – proceed by agreement. If they do, they could hardly complain if Labour campaigned on a manifesto promise to impose a £5,000 donation limit and much tighter controls on spending. 

John Denham is the Labour MP for Southampton Itchen and a former cabinet minister

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on reforming the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.