For the Labour Left, the critical issue about party funding has been protecting the Labour-Union link. The trade unions founded Labour to represent the interests of working people, who at the time were disenfranchised and without a voice. Unique amongst European social democratic parties, Labour’s link isn’t just about money, it remain’s crucial to its politics and many on the Labour right think so too:
I value the contribution of the unions to Labour now. Not just the hard cash, without which we would be bankrupt with no staff and no ability to campaign. But also the practical campaign support at a grassroots level. The policy input bringing bread-and-butter workplace issues to the table. The level-headed trade unionists on our NEC and regional boards who bring measured common sense to our deliberations. The ability to involve hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people in our democracy, not least in our leadership elections.
So said Luke Akehurst earlier this year. But Blair was different. He was actively hostile to the union link, the key difference between New Labour and the traditional Labour right-wing. Although the devil is in the detail of any party funding proposals, Ed Miliband seems to have moved well away from Blair’s position in two key respects:
Firstly, he wants to protect union affiliation in its present form:
The other thing we get form trade unions is the £3 that each individual trade union levy payer pays, people who affiliate to the Labour party, three million people around this country – nurses, shop workers, engineers…
At a time when people say politics is too detached from working people I value the link with the trade union movements, that link stays and I believe in that link and one of the reasons I believe in that link is because of the link it provides us to working people around this country. It’s not just hat working people founded the Labour party, it’s that they keep us rooted in our communities now and I don’t want them disenfranchised, so they continue to be part of this process.
And secondly he is putting considerably emphasis on cutting expenditure rather than income:
I think it’s currently towards £20m – £18m, £19m – over the course of a general election, I think that’s too high, that’s a matter for negotiations but I think it should be substantially less. If parties can’t spend the money, they’re less likely to try and raise the money.”
The latter point is crucial if we are to avoid fuelling demands for more state funding. The public are in no mood to back giving yet more funding to political parties — Labour already receives over £6.5m a year. And more state funding woud be a barrier to change — it reinforces the power of party leaders through whom the funds pass, and funding is on the basis of past not current or future support (though the smaller parties have opposing positions, UKIP against state funding, the Greens in favour provided its allocated based on votes not seats won).
There is no reason why national expenditure should not be significantly reduced. There is already access to free TV airtime for party political broadcasts, and legal restrictions ensure a measure of balance in news coverage and formal debates. Do we really need billboard posters which are so easily lampooned on the internet, and which are inappropriately targeted at marginals anyway?
This is a crucial issue for the Labour left and the trade unions. We all need to keep a close watch on developments. But whilst we would not go as far as Labour List (“Ed Miliband saves the union link“), we should recognise that Ed Miliband has moved significantly in the right direction.