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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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.