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On the problems with reforming the Labour-union link the Tory/Progress way

Labour Union linkLet’s be clear — the shift from opt-out to opt-in is what the Tories have long wanted, and what Progress have campaigned for inside the party. The Tories wanted it because it will damage the party’s finances, and weaken the party. And Progress want it because they want to eliminate union influence on the party, and they have no interest in challenging class-based inequalities of wealth and power. Whatever took place in Falkirk doesn’t begin to justify it. The party-union link needed strengthening not “mending” As Billy Hayes, general secretary of the communication workers, put it:

It’s about signalling to people there’s a problem with the relationship with the trade unions. I don’t think there is.

These changes have been announced as if they were a decision. In spite of the fact that Larry Whitty, experienced former general secretary asked by Ed to lead on implementing the plan, turned it down because it was “unworkable & groundwork had not been done“.

Here are the first, concrete steps I am taking,” said Ed in his email to party members about the plans, which (according to the BBC’s Nick Robinson) were made with the threat of disaffiliating unions who do not comply. These were, he added, “just the first steps, but it won’t end here. I want to hear from you — what are your ideas for us to take this further?” A consultation, with no prospect of influencing what has already been decided. A threat A decision at conference in September, no doubt, on a take it or leave it basis, just like Refounding Labour, without real discussion on any of the detail. And the devil is in the detail.

So what could be in the detail?

Affiliated membership

Ed says “I want a mass membership party not of 200,000 but of many more. ” In his speech he says “with this change I invite you to be at the centre of what this Party does, day in day out, at local level.” So does that mean with equal rights and status as individual members, able to participate in selections and internal elections as do individual members?

Would these members continue to be represented at a regional and national level through their unions? Would Len McCluskey, Paul Kenny and other general secretaries continue to lead delegations at Labour’s conference in an affiliates section that still held 50% of the votes? Would the affiliated sections of Labour’s executive and national policy forum remain as at present? Regardless of how many members opted in?

Because the numbers of affiliated members will plummet. The party will lose much of its revenue, as happened last time it was tried:

In 1927, in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of the General Strike, the Conservative government under Stanley Baldwin turned the requirement around to individual members having to actively opt in to paying the political levy, and apathy cut the combined union political fund by around 50%. In response, one of the first acts of the Labour government of 1945 was to restore opting out.”

Unison already has an affiliated political fund and a general political fund. It affiliates only those 400,000 of its 1.3m members who pay into Unison Labour Link – just over 30% – and that’s not so much opt-in than the result of a multiple choice (as Unison saysyou can choose whether to pay a proportion of your subs into the affiliated political fund (Labour Link), the general political fund (GPF), both, or neither“). A prominent GMB activist I spoke to today reckoned that the GMB, in many ways a model of Labour loyalism, would be able to recruit between 5 and 20% on an opt-in basis.

Unfortunately, Labour’s stock is not very high with union members. That is a large part of Labour’s problem. It became too distant from its core voters under New Labour, and in spite of Ed Miliband’s commitment to change, not enough has been done to reconnect since. That is why Unite and other unions have found it so difficult to recruit to Labour. Unite’s political strategy was to recruit 5000 members in a year and it has actually managed a tiny fraction of that, Falkirk nothwithstanding.

Selections and Primaries 

As to selections – which nominally brought the the union-party relationship to the fore – Ed’s big idea is capping spending — “.” A great idea in theory. And highly desirable with PR companies like BBM co-founded by three leading Blairites including Margaret McDonagh, former party general secretary, running slick professional campaigns for Progress candidates throughout the UK. BBM also ran the campaign for Georgia Gould in Erith and Thamesmead where, when Gould’s campaign looked like losing, the postal vote ballot box was deliberately tampered with and the subsequent investigation blocked (see full story).

But how do you prevent third party involvement where there is no direct connection with the candidate or perhaps even the party? Independent organisations like Progress. Local papers. There is a long history of third involvement. In the 1970s, Reg Prentice was even backed by the right wing Freedom Association.

And if you permit primaries, how would you avoid restricting the contest only to those who could raise large sums or secure the backing of media barons? It is not surprising that even people on the right of the party like john Spellar and Luke Akehurst have written eloquently against a primary for the London mayoralty.

Primaries devalue the benefits of Labour Party membership – members have little enough influence on anything as it is now. Even the involvement of registered supporters is highly problematic. Without a money-trail to follow, how open abuse would the party be not only in those areas with a history of ‘membership irregularities’ but everywhere?

In the weeks ahead, we need answers to these questions, and the party needs an open debate.


  1. John says:

    Luke akehurst’s against a primary for the mayor, news to me

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      John: Why don’t you follow the link… then you’ll find it!

  2. David Pavett says:

    It is true that the opt-in rather than the opt-out is what the right has long wanted and it is no surprise that they are jubilant. It is also true that this is yet another example of Party policy made up at the centre and presented to the membership as a fait-accompli. However, neither of those things, in themselves, mean that the policy is wrong or that the current system is defensible. Merely to point out the financial dis-benefits of the proposed change does not show it to be wrong. The question is whether it is right to have people counting as affiliated members by default when, as Jon’s piece in effect recognises, if they had to opt in they would not do so. The only argument I have seen for maintaining the opt-out system is that Labour would lose funds if it were abandoned and union influence would be reduced to reflect the numbers choosing to be linked to Labour. I cannot see how this argument can be expected to withstand the onslaught from the right because it can stand on its own merits. We on the left need to think a bit harder about this.

    I agree with Jon’s questions about the various knock on effects of this change and, as they imply, the consequences (intended or unintended) would be far-reaching.

    I found the Unison approach as described interesting. I am not sure why Jon says that the multiple-choice question does not amount to an opt-in. It sounds as though it is just that to me.

    At the heart of all this is the plain fact of Labour’s lack of internal democracy. Most party members have given up taking an interest in how policy is formed because they have no say in the matter. The Party has a complex system of committees and forums for deciding party policy but it is all a gigantic farce. The leadership makes up policy, without consultation, when it sees fit to do so. What kind of a basis is that for a healthy link with affiliated organisations? In his speech Miliband claimed that the Party’s policy procedures had been revitalised under his leadership. This is nonsense – unless you think that the Your Britain website is an effective method for the membership to determine Party policy.

    I could not agree more with Jon about selections and primaries. This idea, if implemented, would be the final effective death of any democratic politics within the Labour Party. We would finally have reached a US style situation of mindless populist politics. We are not far from it and Miliband and the Labour leadership seem keen to take the extra step required to get there. That would confirm and reinforce the control of the Party by a small clique of professional politicians and the suits who follow them around.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      David: The reasons why the Unison fund is not opt in are as follows: strictly speaking Unison doesn’t have two political funds but two sections of the one fund the law allows. When they join, new members are offered a choice to tick one of two boxes for each section of the fund. Many don’t. Those who don’t are sent a reminder. Many don’t reply. Because they have not opted out of the (in law) one political fund (just not chosen between two different sections) these new members are then allocated administratively, 50% to the general political fund and 50% to the affiliated fund. Existing members can choose, at any point, to switch between the two sections of the political fund, to opt-out altogether or (for a small additional payment) to be a member of both sections of the political fund. Without this administrative allocation process, if the only members who were allocated to the APF were those who made a positive choice, the proportion of APF payers would fall well below 33% in a few years. (I am grateful to a member of the Unison executive for this explanation)

      There’s no way that you can call that “opt-in”; it is in fact just as “opt out” as Unite and the GMB’s funds.

      Speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning, GMB general secretary Paul Kenny said that a reasonable expectation, based upon postal vote participation in union internal elections, and on the lack of enthusiasm for the Labour Party from union members, would mean that around 10% of members might opt in. That woud mean that there would be no more than 300,000 opt-in affiliated members compared with 200,000 individual members. However, a high proportion (perhaps over 50% – it is supposed to be compulsory if there is an appropriate union) are also union members so perhaps 50,000 of these are affiliated members too. This means that there would be only slightly more additional affiliated members than individual members. Mind you, why should people remain as individual members if they get equality as affiiated members (which they surely deserve if they have positively chosen to be so)?

      One ommission in my article was about local arrangements. Currently, trade union branches affiliate to CLPs. Could this continue under opt-in if only 10% of union membership was involved? If not would that not destroy the local relationship which Ed says he wants to develop? The party might gain a mailing list but it could lose a much more vauable connection with loca workplaces.

  3. David Pavett says:

    Jon, thanks for your response. Yes, you have clarified the Unison approach and, as you say, that is clearly not an opt-in.

    What you didn’t respond to was my main point: what justification can there be for affiliating individual union members to a political party it this is not done with their conscious and declared approval. Failure to address that point seems to me to be the Achilles heel of the case for retaining the current system. Failure to answer it has provided the right with an solid victory.

    Simply to point out that changing the existing arrangement would lead to a loss of Labour funds surely cannot be considered as a sufficient case against the proposed changes.

    I agree with all the other points you make about the knock-on effects including those at local level. What all this reveals is what an organisational mess the Labour Party is. Now the left has to propose something better. I cannot see any way in which the problem can be resolved just by going back to the old system. It was creaking anyway. The right just had to give it a shove which they were more than happy to do.

    I readily grant that where all this is likely to lead is not a good place. If the right has its way then the party will be reduced to an election machine in which policy and direction are determined by a tiny clique at the top and the various sources of private funding that the Party is likely to look for to gradually replace that of the unions. It would be a sad and alarming outcome but it will not be averted by demanding a return to the status quo ante.

  4. RedShift says:

    Just to quibble slightly with your latest post Jon:-

    Firstly, I think what’s being made clear is that the opt-out for political funds would remain – it is opting-out of the Labour Party aspect of this that they are proposing to change to an opt-in. Agreed that this would still have the impact you’ve described on Labour’s finances, but it would still be an opt-out system for the political fund in the way it is conducting for most unions.

    Secondly, with regards to union branch-CLP affiliation arrangements, different unions have very different ways of doing this. E.g. GMB do it by regional political committee, whereas in Unite the decision is made by branches at branch meetings. In both cases this results in many branches that you could legitimately argue should be affiliated to a CLP, are not, more often than not actually out of a kind of neglect/lack of information than anything else. My point being, that a) branch affiliation isn’t exactly great at the moment anyway and b) the levels of involvement don’t tend to be the deciding factor.

  5. RedShift says:

    David, personally I think an affiliated union has democratically decided to affiliate then I don’t really have a problem with opt-out. Why not?

    Staff members of companies don’t get a proportionate opt-in (or opt-out for that matter) about whether their companies money is spent on Tory party donations – and they aren’t a democratic organisation.

  6. David Pavett says:

    Redshift, I think the point is that if someone is to be counted as a member of a political party, whether direct or affiliated, this should be because they have chosen to be so. Simply being a member of an organisation that thinks it would be good for you to be so makes people members who have no real desire to be such. That is not a good basis for an active and vibrant membership.

  7. Mike says:

    In my view the idea of a London primary for mayor is very undesirable and one we might yet defeat, as I argue here

  8. David Pavett says:

    Mike, most of us have limited time to follow up every link. Links are great for those wanting further information. However, a blog contribution should surely state its case, at least in outline rather than saying, ‘I don’t agree. See my blog’.

    In the event I read your blog piece and agreed with your points but I think that the low level of discussion on the left requires that we all make an effort to make our view as accessible as possible in different ways. See my blog is not good enough. We need a reason for doing that.

  9. ann bennett says:

    I think this proposed action by the blurs led party will definitely loose us . (them) I wont be party such betrayals , the next election .

  10. The other Tony B says:

    It’s ironic that the FT has understood the proposals while the left has been bamboozled by the spin:
    The proposals give union leaderships more control over donations to the LP…..they can reward or punish depending on what the LP does……a kind of payment by results. The real problem is the democratic deficit in trade unions which over rely on antique modes of decision making by poorly attended meetings and low participation ballots for leaders when the technology exists for genuine e-democracy.

  11. David Pavett says:

    The other Tony B. I would hesitate before taking Jim Pickard’s analysis (in the FT) at face value. He has a consistent anti-Labour, anti-union bias in his pieces so it is probably a good idea not to take his assertions at face value. Miliband’s proposals would, as Pickard says, mean less money going to Labour as direct affiliation fees. This could probably go into the unions general political fund. But would this give the unions increased power within Labour? Hardly. First, the unions would have few votes to wield at Party Conference and second, they will not want to be seen as trying to determine Labour policy on the basis of withholding donations over and above the affiliation fee if they cannot get their way with their votes. I think that the new situation would be likely to reduce total union funding to Labour which would then look for private sources to replace it. Overall, I think that the most likely upshot would be a distancing of Labour and the unions and an increased hold of the right-wing over the Party. That, in turn, would further weaken union support. At the very least Pickard’s view is a questionable interpretation of the facts and not a spin-free account that has eluded the left.

  12. The other Tony B says:

    Re David’s comment on my posting:

    A technical point of major significance. You say “This could probably go into the unions general political fund.” No. That money must be law already be in the political fund. That’s key to the analysis.

    I wasn’t saying I agreed with Pickard’s stance, just that the left seemed to be missing the point that the proposals gave more power to the General Secretaries of LP affiliated unions not less. They would be able to have their dialogue and influence with the LP behind closed doors with more cash on the table than now – rather than attract the odium of public use of the block vote at an already ‘Americanised’ toothless Conference. For them, whether the LP got more or less money in total wouldn’t be the concern, but whether they were getting value for money in making donations rather than the donations simply being automatic. Yes, in formal terms the unions would be distanced from the party, but they would have more purchasing power over it in the backroom. You rightly say that this would lead to an increased right wing hold on the party (because that’s where most union General Secretaries are). Hence my point that a key demand in response to the proposals must be to modernise democratic decision making in unions to counter Milliband giving increased power to their bureaucracies.
    Incidentally, it is not ‘private’ sources of funding that we should be most worried about – surely unlikely to be significant anyway – but state funding of political parties which should be opposed tooth and nail, not least because it would give state funding to BNP UKIP and the like.

  13. John says:

    If Ukip get several million votes then those tax payers , would be justified in as
    Ewing their tax go to those parties as much as anyone, saying that I wouldn’t want my tax ,go to Sinn Fein,

  14. Robert says:

    John your tax does go to Sinn Fein after all they are now fully paid up members of the political scene.

    But if UKIP get several million votes I will eat my hat if I had one that is, I suspect UKIP will be saying we are getting closer and one day yes one day.

    Reforming the link, I do not think the link is broken I suspect it was all agreed before hand, little bit of hype on TV Ed comes out as his own man looking like the strong leader sadly he’s not.

  15. Patrick Coates says:

    Robert I think i agree with you, it was probably started in the USA, and has stuffed the media big time. It is a way of getting the “Brand” electable, and extremly cleaver, even not reconising the BBC and SKY are in the same small room.
    Up 11 points in the polls proves the point, but how to elect an MP with no money etc; will be the hardest question, but i hope the person in the USA has thought that one out before 2015.

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