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.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser