In recent days, the influence of Unions on the political structure and candidates of the Labour Party has received increasing focus. The issue began over a candidate selection in Falkirk where a new Labour MP needs to be selected. According to an internal Labour report, UNITE (GB’s largest Union, and the Labour Party’s biggest donor) were accused of signing up dozens of new members, and forging signatures in order to ensure their preferred candidate was selected. The issue has raised questions regarding the unions’ influence upon the candidate selections for the Labour party, and the Labour party have attempted to deflect negative attention by focussing upon funding for political parties as a whole.
A bit of background…
Originally the Labour party, as its name suggests, was the party for the traditional working class. Currently, members of supportive unions automatically pay a levy to Labour, although they can choose to opt out. Roughly three million union members currently pay the automatic levy of £3 per year, meaning that any reform to the current system could lose the Labour Party up to £9 million in funding annually.
Ed Miliband has pledged to end the automatic levy paid by union members as he says that individuals members of unions should not make contributions to Labour “unless they have deliberately chosen to do so”. If Miliband follows through with the plan, it is likely to slash the affiliation income that Labour receives, as well as giving unions more discretion as to how they spend their political funds.
Unions have responded differently to the suggested proposals. Mr Kenny, the general secretary of the GMB unions, criticised the plan and claimed that only 10% of people within the union would be likely to retain affiliation with the Party. If Mr Kenny is correct, that would mean that almost 560,000 members would no longer be affiliated to Labour. In contrast to this, the general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey said the fee – worth £8m a year to Labour – would “stay as it is”. The leader of the Communication Workers Union, Billy Hayes, has called Ed Miliband’s union reform plans “completely muddled”.
Opponents of the Labour party have used the Falkirk scandal to publicly reinforce the belief that unions run the Labour party and that with their 49% of Conference votes, and regular pay cheques, they have a significant and overly large influence over the party, its candidates, and its policy. However, polls show that 69% of the population believe that the Labour party should retain its strong links with the trade unions “because they represent many hard-working people in Britain”. No amount of reform will be enough to satisfy those that want to completely drive unions out of politics. However, Miliband’s real test is whether his plans will act to counter the corporate power and influence that makes up the vast majority of the current political establishment, or whether it will only serve to entrench it further.
Miliband’s tactical errors
Miliband has attempted to deflect negative attention over the Falkirk issue, by writing in The Mirror: “I’ve acted on party funding, and it’s time David Cameron did too”. Miliband is attempting to engage in a funding battle with Cameron by suggestion a £5,000 cap on donations from individuals and institutions. Miliband may find that he has picked the wrong battle at the wrong time. Alienating the unions, and the members that pay the equivalent of 6p per week, is not going to encourage Cameron to agree to giving up large donations from wealthy supporters, although it will reduce funding and potentially support from union members for the Labour party.