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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Vince Cable will need something snappier than a graduate tax to escape tuition fees

Perhaps he's placing his hopes in the “Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front.” 

“We took power, and we got crushed,” Tim Farron said in what would turn out to be his final Autumn conference as Liberal Democrat leader, before hastening on to talk about Brexit and the need for a strong opposition.

A year and a snap election later, Vince Cable, the Lib Dem warhorse-turned-leader and the former Coalition business secretary, had plenty of cracks about Brexit.

He called for a second referendum – or what he dubbed a “first referendum on the facts” – and joked that he was “half prepared for a spell in a cell with Supreme Court judges, Gina Miller, Ken Clarke, and the governors of the BBC” for suggesting it".

Lib Dems, he suggested, were the “political adults” in the room, while Labour sat on the fence. Unlike Farron, however, he did not rule out the idea of working with Jeremy Corbyn, and urged "grown ups" in other parties to put aside their differences. “Jeremy – join us in the Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front,” he said. The Lib Dems had been right on Iraq, and would be proved right on Brexit, he added. 

But unlike Farron, Cable revisited his party’s time in power.

“In government, we did a lot of good and we stopped a lot of bad,” he told conference. “Don’t let the Tories tell you that they lifted millions of low-earners out of income tax. We did… But we have paid a very high political price.”

Cable paid the price himself, when he lost his Twickenham seat in 2015, and saw his former Coalition colleague Nick Clegg turfed out of student-heavy Sheffield Hallam. However much the Lib Dems might wish it away, the tuition fees debate is here to stay, aided by some canny Labour manoeuvring, and no amount of opposition to Brexit will hide it.

“There is an elephant in the room,” the newly re-established MP for Twickenham said in his speech. “Debt – specifically student debt.” He defended the policy (he chose to vote for it in 2010, rather than abstain) for making sure universities were properly funded, but added: “Just because the system operates like a tax, we cannot escape the fact it isn’t seen as one.” He is reviewing options for the future, including a graduate tax. But students are unlikely to be cheering for a graduate tax when Labour is pledging to scrap tuition fees altogether.

There lies Cable’s challenge. Farron may have stepped down a week after the election declaring himself “torn” between religion and party, but if he had stayed, he would have had to face the fact that voters were happier to nibble Labour’s Brexit fudge (with lashings of free tuition fees), than choose a party on pure Remain principles alone.

“We are not a single-issue party…we’re not Ukip in reverse,” Cable said. “I see our future as a party of government.” In which case, the onus is on him to come up with something more inspiring than a graduate tax.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.