Len McCluskey speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Unite's £1.5m funding cut means Labour will need to bargain with McCluskey

The union is prepared to reduce the shortfall but will expect policy concessions in return.

It looks like Labour might be needing that "large donation" from Tony Blair (which I revealed speculation about yesterday). After Ed Miliband's party reforms were passed at the weekend, Unite's executive has announced that it is reducing its annual affiliation fee from £3m to £1.5m. The cut is the automatic result of its decision to reduce the number of members it affiliates to Labour from one million to 500,000 (each contributes £3 a year). With the party now requiring all union levy payers to opt into donating, Len McCluskey rightly felt that it was "untenable" to continue to affiliate one million members when polls suggest no more than half of Unite members support Labour.  Following the GMB's earlier decision to cut its funding from £1.2m to £150,000, the total financial hit from Miliband's reforms now stands at £2.55m.

But significantly, Unite makes clear in its statement that it is prepared to reduce the shortfall through one-off donations from its enlarged political fund. It said: "The Executive Council is, however, also aware that we are now just a year from a General Election, in which it is vital that the British people are offered a clear political alternative to the ruinous economic and social policies of the Coalition government. It is not in the interests of democracy itself for Labour – the only Party which can offer such an alternative – to contest the election without the resources required to make the contest a “fair fight” against the parties of global capital and the super-rich.

"Bearing in mind the tight timescales in which decisions may need to be made over this next period, it therefore authorises the General Secretary to respond to any requests for additional financial assistance, beyond the affiliation fee, which may be made by the Labour Party, after first consulting the Executive Council or the Finance & General Purposes Committee."

The two key questions are how much Unite will provide in discretionary donations and what it will demand in return (although it is worth noting that the unions have always had the power to reduce the number of members they affiliate). As McCluskey said in his speech following Miliband's announcement of the changes last summer, he will (perfectly reasonably) no longer tolerate those who "welcome our money but don't want our policy input" and expects the union to have "enhanced" influence under the new system because "our voice and our votes are looked at as legitimate". On another occasion, he told the Guardian that while he was not "looking to bankrupt the party", future funding would depend on "the policies Labour themselves are adopting, and in the context of whether we would give donations that would be determined by my executive and my political committees. It is a collective decision".

McCluskey's policy wishlist includes an end to public spending cuts, the repeal of the benefit cap, and the building of a million extra homes. The challenge for Miliband will be adopting measures radical enough to satisfy the unions while also ensuring Labour sticks to its tough deficit reduction targets.

Alongside this, the party will obviously seek to attract more private donations - and that means welcoming money from Blair and other wealthy Labour supporters. The left of the party might complain (although it is worth remembering Miliband's pledge to introduce a cap of £5,000 on all donations), but when you're preparing to fight a general election against a well-funded Conservative machine, you can't be choosy. Until party funding reform is finally achieved, Labour can't afford to unilaterally disarm.

Here's Unite's statement in full:

"The decision of the Labour Party Special Conference on March 1 to adopt the proposals of the Collins review sets the collective relationship of Unite and other affiliated unions with the Party on a new course.

"The union will rapidly prepare a plan to ensure that we maximise the number of our political levy paying members who express support for our continuing collective affiliation, and who take advantage of the possibility of becoming associated members of the Party. Our representative on the Implementation Committee which will oversee the introduction of the agreed reforms will, among other things, work to ensure that the interests of our members are protected in the forthcoming selection process for Labour candidate for London Mayor and in any leadership election that may occur before 2020.

"When the Leader of the Party announced his intention to seek changes in the Labour-union relationship in summer 2013, he made it clear that he did not think it appropriate that the Party continue to accept affiliation fees from those who had not actively assented to such payments. Unite accepted that principle at the time.

"By the conclusion of the transitional period in 2020, it will be clear how many members of Unite and other unions actively support their political levy being used to affiliate to the Labour Party. Unite will work to make that number as large as possible. It is inevitable, however, that the final total will be considerably less than the present one million members affiliated. Opinion polling evidence suggests that, while Labour is by some way the most popular choice for Unite members at the ballot box, no more than half the membership in Britain vote Labour at present (many of the others not voting at all).

"The Executive Council therefore agrees that Unite’s affiliation will need to be reduced over the five-year period to 2020 to reflect this reality. It will therefore affiliate 500,000 members to the Party for 2014, and will review this number annually.

"The Executive Council is, however, also aware that we are now just a year from a General Election, in which it is vital that the British people are offered a clear political alternative to the ruinous economic and social policies of the Coalition government. It is not in the interests of democracy itself for Labour – the only Party which can offer such an alternative – to contest the election without the resources required to make the contest a “fair fight” against the parties of global capital and the super-rich.

"Bearing in mind the tight timescales in which decisions may need to be made over this next period, it therefore authorises the General Secretary to respond to any requests for additional financial assistance, beyond the affiliation fee, which may be made by the Labour Party, after first consulting the Executive Council or the Finance & General Purposes Committee."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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