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Party funding: Ed moves in the right direction but the devil’s in the detail

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.


  1. Joe Chapman says:

    Last year on March 26th there was a big ‘rally’ in Hyde Park apparently put on by the TUC. Certain political figures, such as Caroline Lucas of the Green Party were not allowed to speak, I wrote to the TUC to ask why and they replied that only the ‘Official Leader of The Opposition, Ed Miliband’ would be the main party political speaker. So I boycotted the Hyde Park rally and stayed in town and took part outside Fortnum and Mason instead. I felt that people were shipped in on coaches by the Unions and then herded towards Hyde Park also by the Unions to see the leader of the Labour Party speak at what seemed to be an exclusive concert.

    I’m assuming it cost a lot of money to put all of that on – hiring out Hyde Park (like many rock bands do), coaches etc.

    I’m a member of Unison but I do not affiliate to the Labour Party and do not fund it.

    Or do I?

    So where did the money come from to put on the Hyde Park event and provide coaches to and from the march?

    If it came from the general political fund then does that mean that my money went into providing Ed Miliband with a massive concert to promote him and his party?

    If it came from the Labour Party fund then I’m not sure how this is fair really.

    Of course there was a time when people, working class people, needed a voice and things were much more difficult to get one. I have this uncomfortable feeling though that it seems deeply unfair and out of balance.

    Maybe I’ve misunderstood how it works?

  2. andy newman says:

    Joe. Most unions affiliated to the TUC are not affiliated to the Labour Party, and none of the teaching unions nor PCS, for example.

    The TUC would have been very sensitive to the impartiality of those unions. So the decision to allow the leader of the opposition to speak should be taken at face value as a mechanism to avoid taking a party political position.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Joe and Andy: I agree with Andy and would point out that even most unions with a political fund are not affiliated to Labour.

  3. I am concerned that the reason for the existence of the Labour Party and the Unions has been forgotten or pushed into the background because young people cannot remember how much both have done for the working population of the UK. It’s not so long ago that we had no voice at all. We were subjected to decisions made by rich and powerful government members and scorned by these patronising and arrogant law makers. Wages for the ordinary working man, and it was mostly men, were appalling but the proletariat did the real work to keep the rich in the way they had always been. Subservience is no longer an option and I believe that strong Unions and the Labour Party are essential for us to have an even perspective and a chance to change inequalities which would not have been available without them.
    Unions and the Labour Party are not perfect but none of us is perfect. We are human and mistakes are made but please do not lose sight of the basic principles. The alternatives, ie the Tories & LibDems are proving to be ideologically greedy, self-seeking & amazingly patronising. We have to work together to remove them from power.

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