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On austerity, the Labour-union link and the threat of state funding political parties

billy hayesThis is an abridged version of the speech by Billy Hayes to yesterday’s conference and AGM of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD)

It is a privilege to address your conference. CLPD gives coherence to everything the left stands for inside of the party – to be practical, effective and principled. There is no difference amongst us, I’m sure, on the need to return Labour government on 7 May but at present, if the situation in Scotland remains unchanged, the best we maybe saying is Labour is the largest party. 

It didn’t have to be this way. Let’s recall that during 2012 labour was scoring 10 points above the Tories. Then Ed Miliband and Ed balls announced their decision to adopt austerity as a Labour policy. This can be dressed up as a fairer policy approach than the coalition. And no doubt it could be so. But with comparable spending limits come comparable cuts.

That was a disappointment, and a tremendous blow to Labour’s standing in the polls. The SNP and the Greens have benefited from Labour voters deciding to support a party that opposes austerity. If we can’t convince the Labour leadership at present then we must keep up the pressure in the future.

The victory of Syriza in Greece is very important for the future of the EU. The failure of any other government in the EU to stand up against austerity means the new Greek government is isolated, in the short term. But the movement throughout Europe is changing fast, notably in Spain and Ireland. Given the current stagnation in the Eurozone, it’s hard to believe that people will accept further austerity which will only deepen the economic stagnation.  Our task is still to deliver a Labour government, despite the leadership’s current support for austerity. Only with a Labour government do we have the chance of a better more progressive, economic policy.

Since CLPD’s last AGM, we’ve had the findings of the Collins review endorsed at Labour’s spring conference last year. It is then appropriate to consider how that is likely to affect our future work. The introduction of the affiliated supporters category is likely to lead to a reduction in union subscriptions. Each union will be using the five-year period to try and maximise the number of affiliated supporters.

The CWU you is preparing its first exercise in offering members the choice of opting in or out. I envisage the union having to in the engage in this exercise a number of times. None of us can be certain what percentage of levy-players are likely to become affiliated supporters. All of us, I would guess, believe that it is likely to be considerably less than the current affiliated levels. 

Certainly there are incentives to organise and argue for take-up. Immediately after the general election we face the important contest for Labour’s nominee for London Mayor. Given that this is being decided through a primary, the unions will have to put a lot of effort into signing up members if they want to have an influence in the contest. 

We will have to use every argument possible. We will have to deploy every type of communication – traditional and social media – in order to get the maximum support. Of course I believe it is essential for progressive politics that the unions remain affiliated to the party. Yes it is hard to believe that there will not be a change in the weight of the unions in the party.

Here too, I believe that a major danger facing us is that a Labour government, or a Labour led government, would be tempted to extend the state funding of political parties. There Is likely to be a big drop in finance coming from the levy payers. Inevitably, there will be pressure to make donations proportionate to those affiliation levels.

It is hard to see how the party is not going to take a financial hit. State funding will then be suggested as the real solution to any shortfall. I think this is a strong likelihood. You can imagine that Progress and their allies will favour this solution. it would further remove the elected politicians from dependency upon a mass membership.

State funding will make the leadership less sensitive and accountable to membership meets. In the other direction, it will hollow out the activist base of the party. State funding will strengthen the tendency towards making politics the preserve of a small number of professional politicians. It will also strengthen the hand of those who see politics as a matter of simply providing the best administration – with very little difference in policy.

So this is a big threat and I know CLPD is alert to this. We do have five years to define and stabilise the unions affiliation levels to the party. So we must prepare for a prolonged campaign. But I wanted to talk about some of the immediate problems, because CLPD has never been afraid to face up to difficulties.

Image credit: BBC


  1. margaret says:

    It’s time Labor/Labour UK Aus look at the Globalization or Thatcherism global & join the dots so Obvious increased poverty for majority.
    Grow back bones enact legislation with teeth that will call to account all of power and influence who mislead lie to the public abuse freedom &power given. Nationalize Essential Services rejuvenate public purse. Enact guarantee of living wage make those your policies identify real enemy to democracy.
    Return to Representative Democractic ideology Governments that protect their own people jobs future. Remove lobbyists access to Govts expose think tanks conflict of interest. Communicate with oppositions other Developed nations Unify against Global corporations Bankers Powerful Investors who would usurp national sovereignty & undermine democracy & call their propaganda machine MSMedia to account.
    Sick of anti union anti poor unemployed now it’s inter generational theft latest political divisive spin in Australia. Wake up remember who’s interest you are suppose to serve become as aggressive as the unltra right who are destroying all for Profit & self interest.
    Marg From South Australia

  2. peter willsman says:

    We had about 80 comrades at the agm.This included CWU members from different parts of the UK, as well as London.At lunchtime(without Billy knowing)I spoke to every CWU member I could find.They were all supporting Billy in the GS Election.I am not a CWU member,but I was a full time TU official and I sat on the NEC with Dave Ward.They are both good trade unionists.But Billy is something very special.Not only is he head and shoulders above Dave,but he is head and shoulders above anyone who might fancy their chances as GS.

  3. Robert says:

    I’m in the GMB Union but not in Labour and I do not see why the hell I should pay my levy to what has become a joke of a party.

    People have left the labour party for a reason the reason was Blair Brown and the banking cries, Miliband attacked the Union over Falkirk and did not back it over Grangemouth.

    As for state funding go for it, I suspect it will happen anyway

  4. David Pavett says:

    I agree with the reasons Billy Hayes gives for opposing state funding of political parties. If they can’t raise sufficient funds to survive from members and supporters then either they are spending their money very badly or they don’t deserve to survive.

    Apart from that though I have some real doubts about what he says. What I get from the austerity part of the speech is this.

    We must oppose austerity. Labour has been losing support to anti-austerity parties since it switched to support for austerity economics. It is great that an anti-austerity party has been elected in Greece. So our task is to get Labour elected even though it supports austerity because “Only with a Labour government do we have the chance of a better more progressive, economic policy”.

    The usual reality is that Labour uses mildly radical sounding rhetoric when in opposition which is forgotten as soon as it is elected (just think of its pre ’97 opposition to PPI). Is there any example if Labour moving to the left in government? On what basis can changing Labour to an anti-austerity stance be regarded as a plausible project? How exactly could this be achieved? Labour will not switch its policy before May. Is it conceivable that the likes of Ed Balls and Chuka Umunna can be brought to switch to anti-austerity when in government?

    I am not saying that it can’t be done. I am saying that I don’t see how it can be done and I would like someone who thinks that it is a realistic possibility to explain that to me and others who have similar doubts.

    It should be added that the anti-austerity motion at the July NPF was shot down in flames and that its massive defeat was made possible due to the unions deciding to sabotage their own anti-austerity campaign.

    Billy Hayes repeats the line that a progressive future is only possibly with a Labour government. This is starting to have the appearance of a religious mantra. My question to those who take this line is “Are there any conceivable circumstances that would make you reconsider this view and if so what are they?”. If Labour fails in the next election and Miliband is replaced by a Progress supporter what will this mean for the project of a left turn for Labour?

    Finally, I think that a key background fact which should be kept in mind when debating Labour and what it could become is its long-term historical decline. Membership is now around 190, 000 and will almost certainly decline further if Labour is in goverment after May. That is likely to mean a further reduction in the number of left-wing activists some of whom will either give up in despair or will find other forms of political expression. The decline of Scottish Labour should serve as a stark warning.

    I don’t like to be a prophet of doom and gloom but I am really struggling to see the realism in the idea of getting Labour to take a radical left turn.

    1. Robert says:

      I do not think people want a radical left turn, just to accept that labour is more then just a party of those in work.

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