Saturday, 18 January 2014

Going Backwards

Dan Hodges, a Labour supporter and blogger, initially welcomed Ed Miliband's proposals to transform the Labour Party's relations with the trade unions, but ever since it has become increasingly clear that the planned changes will make things worse - not better.


Because although the Labour Party may refuse to accept money via trade union members that is not intentionally given on an individual basis - there would be nothing under these 'new' arrangements to prevent union bosses like Unite's Len McCluskey from donating the money to Labour anyway. 

Now I would say that such a move would be open to challenge - because how can money that was raised for one purpose be used for another?

To my mind that would be dishonest and wrong, so it will be interesting to see what happens in the months ahead. 

Forget Len McCluskey’s crocodile smile. Ed’s speech really was a historic moment

This morning, Ed Miliband’s Clause Four moment appears to be unravelling. There’s a danger that by the time you read this it will have shrunk to a Clause One and some change moment.

As I wrote yesterday, I think that Miliband’s speech represents the most significant Labour intervention since Neil Kinnock stood up and confronted Militant in 1985, although the cramped room in the St Brides Foundation in Fleet Street – with its huge, incongruous painting of the coronation of King George – lacked some of the theatre.

But there’s no doubt that this morning mine is a minority view. In today’s Financial Times Jim Pickard has an article neatly summing up the prevailing mood among most commentators, which is that Ed Miliband’s grand plan has been overspun and could actually have the unintended effect of giving “even more power to the unions”.

This perception is forming for a number of reasons. One is the unhelpfully positive response from Len McCluskey. Over the past few days we’ve become accustomed to an avalanche of self-pitying, self-indulgent bombast from the Unite leader. But yesterday he was the epitome of moderation and restraint. Miliband’s speech was “visionary” he said. His union would engage “positively” with the proposals.

All of which is jolly nice of him, but not necessarily indicative of the response of the union movement as a whole. Over the past week the other union general secretaries have been furious at McCluskey’s grandstanding. And my understanding is that Unite have now agreed to dial down the rhetoric and allow other unions to take a lead in responding to the Miliband plan.

And their response is instructive. Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union, was said to be “bouncing off the walls” over what Miliband had announced, something reflected in his slightly tortured description of the proposals as “completely without the necessary substance that is required to see if they are workable”. Ominously, he added that “in the scrum of publicity it is important to note that Ed Miliband has said that these ideas will take a considerable length of time to flesh out and if feasible to implement them”. Billy Hayes of the CWU described the announcement as “dog whistle” politics, whilst Dave Prentis of Unison described the whole thing as “an unforgivable diversion from the real issues that this country faces”. That last comment was probably directed as much at the leader of Unite as the leader of the Labour Party.

Of course these other unions could just be playing to the gallery. But I’m not convinced Miliband’s plans are guaranteed a fair wind. As one shadow cabinet member said to me last night, “This is going to get bumpy”.

Another reason why the Miliband plan is getting such a bad press is the realisation that the political funds held by the unions will remain untouched by the proposal. As Jim Pickard rightly says: “That means the unions will have extra millions which can be used by unions for policy campaigning and – crucially – for big donations to Labour, for example at election time.”

There are two aspects to this. First, it’s true that the political funds themselves will remain unaffected by the plan.

But that’s fair enough. Unions are currently required by law to ballot their members to see whether they want to establish a political fund. And individual members also have the right to opt out of that fund if they personally don’t wish to pay into it. Whatever people think of the unions, surely no one is seriously arguing that in a democracy they should be denied the right to mount campaigns and engage in political activity on behalf of their members.

The second issue relates to the fact that the measures Miliband proposes on the current rules for affiliating members are effectively meaningless, because the unions can still channel the money “saved” from affiliation fees to Labour in the form of one-off donations. And it’s true that if Len McCluskey can continue to buy influence in this way then the whole thing is a waste of time.

But it ignores the fact the Labour Party is now committed to a spending cap of £5,000 on all one-off political donations. At the moment that proposal is stalled, because David Cameron is currently refusing to sign off on it. But in the event that Miliband were to become prime minister, or find himself facing the prospect of coalition with the Lib Dems, that obstacle would be removed. Indeed, the Lib Dems would probably make party funding reform a prerequisite for any coalition agreement with Labour.

Some say once in government Ed Miliband could easily junk the commitment, once again leaving him at Len McCluskey’s mercy. But that raises a further important question. Why would he?

Tony Blair said yesterday that he wished he’d introduced Ed Miliband’s plan himself. Gordon Brown had actually drawn up an identical proposal, but shelved it because he didn’t feel he would be able to force it through. The truth is that every Labour leader has at some time or other wished they could clip the unions wings, but feared any effort to push through reform would be vetoed by the unions themselves.

That would not be an issue for Prime Minister Miliband. The spending cap is settled Labour Party policy. Miliband has already said the changes to the affiliation rules must be in place before the election. And what logical reason would he have for saying “Actually, you know what, I want Len McCluskey and the rest of the unions to be able to blackmail me after all”?
Of course Miliband could easily lose the next election. Indeed, I think that remains the most likely outcome. But the cat is now out of the bag. No future Labour leader can attempt to water down Miliband's proposals and hope to retain any political credibility.

The reality is the days of the unions bankrolling the Labour party are drawing to a close. Forget Len McCluskey’s crocodile smile. Ed Miliband’s speech really was a historic moment.