Len McCluskey speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.