UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Party Funding - the sidelining of Labour's affiliated unions begins?‏

Today’s Independent editorial is cock-a-hoop at its own speculative report that Labour is about to make key concessions on the Union Labour link. It reports that evidence given to the inquiry into party political finance being conducted by the Committee for Standards in Public Life by outgoing Labour General Secretary (and soon to be Lord) Ray Collins has made key concessions on introducing a cap in individual donations (and therefore union affiliation fees):

‘A financial cap of this kind would at a stroke significantly reduce their influence over policy. At the very least, therefore, the latest proposal shows that Mr Miliband sees beyond these parochial considerations and understands that it is undemocratic for his, or any, party to be so wholly dependent on a single financial source. In Labour's case, it is not simply that reliance on a drip-feed of money from the unions skews the internal debate on important questions such as strikes. Just as dangerous is the sense of apathy it encourages about recruiting new members, without which any party is bound to fossilise’:

Collins is reported to have conceded in a letter to the inquiry that "while some argue for a cap of £50,000, a much lower cap of around £500 would be more equitable, democratic and less susceptible to avoidance." This would require union affiliation fees to be disaggregated into individual donations and potentially sever substantial donations to Labour by trade unions from political funds. Of course, being fully aware that the Sir Hayden Phillips review failed on precisely this point, Collins is careful to give the impression of support for the institutional status quo: "any proposals should be respectful of the different traditions, backgrounds and structures of the various political parties. Party funding reform should not be used as a means to alter the institutional constitutional arrangements of individual political parties."

A full transcript of the evidence submitted by Collins is not yet in the public domain, but there is sufficient in the Independent report to put it at odds with the submission made to the inquiry by the 15 affiliated unions under the collective umbrella of TULO:

The Committee is holding 10 public hearings as part of its inquiry and the transcripts, which are available on line make interesting reading http://www.public-standards.org.uk/index.html

Its fourth public hearing held on 23 November gives an indication that the wind is blowing in an anti-union direction. Professor Anthony King served on the Committee in 1998 and now comes down against the current union Labour link: ‘I think it is an anachronism in 2010 that a political party is so dependent on one section - as it happens, a declining section - of the community. I think there are many people who wish that some mechanism could be found for relieving the Labour Party of the need to be financially dependent on the trade unions.’

At the same hearing Peter Watt, predecessor of Collins as Labour Party General Secretary, gives a revealing insight into the attitude of Labour officials to the Party’s relationship with Unions:

“I think the relationship between the party and trade unions, people misconstrue it, it is not a relationship we have with them, they are of the Labour Party, they formed us, they are members of. People talk about the trade unions and the Labour Party, we are the same institution in terms of the Labour Party, they are fundamentally in our DNA from top to bottom, and that cannot and will not change, and the party gains huge political strength from that and I think could gain more.

"We also have a financial relationship with them, because the way the relationship has been defined to date, or part of the relationship has been defined to date, has been with an affiliation fee. I think that the two are not the same, we have a relationship with them and we have an affiliation fee, which is the way at the moment in which that relationship is defined, partly in the constitution.

"I do not see personally a problem with affiliation fees being outside of the cap, as long as - and I think Hayden Phillips was absolutely clear on this - the trade unions themselves can actually audit trail an individual deciding to give money through the affiliated principal funder to the labour party and can audit trail backwards and forwards, because then the perfectly legitimate claim of trade unions, and this is a perfectly legitimate claim, which is that we affiliate collectively, but it is members who are choosing to affiliate collectively, it is not a faceless entity, and therefore on that basis the trade union is giving money to the labour party in affiliation fees, which is what our constitution says, they join as collective members…”

Watt pins the blame for the failure of the Phillips review on unnamed union leaders:

“The problem was that some of the trade unions were not prepared to even countenance a greater degree of transparency in terms of how those affiliations were calculated, and that level of transparency that Hayden Phillips I think quite legitimately required, they were not willing to give, and secondly I think it would be fair to say that some of the trade union general secretaries also wanted, in addition, to give donations or withhold donations as and when they wanted to. “

Pressed by the Committee on whether the Phillips proposals for opting in to political funds rather than current opting out (likely to have a catastrophic impact on levy payer numbers), Watt says:

"..if there was no internal pressure from one or two trade unions to actually stop that deal, I think a deal could have been done, it was not an unreasonable deal, and actually talking privately with many people in the trade union movements, they did not like it, but they could have bought it, so I think we came very close, but actually I think with hindsight I think that the internal pressures in the party, I think at the time the leader of the Labour Party, the Prime Minister was politically not strong enough at that point to be able to muscle it through, shall we say, and I think that the trade unions knew that they could stop it, and they did.

"One of the things that we discovered as a movement actually was just how complicated and not necessarily consistent the applications of management rules across all the trade unions were. Again, because they are individual organisations with separate rules and I think that was one of the reasons many of the trade unions resisted because they are also quite independent organisations and the notion of somebody else coming in and telling them that they have to change their practice was also something that, quite understandably, they were reluctant to take on.”

The spinning of a new approach by Labour in today’s Independent is clearly part of a strategy to soften up public opinion as well as inside the Labour Party and affiliated unions for a renewed attack on Union Labour link. The Committee for Standards in Public Life continues to receive evidence through to February and will report in Spring 2011. It remains to be seen how vigorously TULO will campaign for the agreed position of the affiliated unions.

For further reading on the Union Labour link and party funding go to: