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This week's article for The Daily Telegraph: Ed Miliband's proposals will increase the power of the union barons
10/07/2013 15:40:00


Ed Miliband has had a difficult last few weeks. The economy is looking up. His attempt to give Labour a slightly more credible position on borrowing was undermined by his shadow chancellor’s continued insistence that the last Labour government didn't get a thing wrong. He was unable to make up his mind whether he is in favour or against a referendum on our relationship with the EU. And worst of all, more and more evidence has come to light about the way in which his chief paymaster, the Unite union, has been rigging the selection of Labour Parliamentary candidates.

Yesterday, he gave a speech setting out his response to this crisis. It contained a couple of good ideas (in particular the idea of using open primaries to select candidates, so that far more people are involved in taking the decision), but it was flawed on a number of levels.

First, he continued to refer solely to Falkirk as if that was the only place where Unite has been trying to get its candidates selected.

Second, although he admitted that what happened in Falkirk was “damaging” and “confirms people’s worst suspicions” there wasn’t a word of criticism for those responsible or any reference to what action the Labour Party will take against them.

Third, Ray Collins, the person he has put in charge of working up his proposals, is... wait for it... a former Assistant General Secretary of Unite.

But fourth and most seriously, the key proposal he announced (allowing individual trade union members to choose whether part of their political levy goes to the Labour Party in the form of an affiliation fee, rather than being automatically affiliated), while clearly right in principle, will undoubtedly increase the power of the union barons. Len McCluskey said he was “very comfortable” with what Ed Miliband is proposing. That tells you everything you need to know.

When the speech was trailed, some people incorrectly assumed that Miliband was proposing that union members would have to opt in to their union’s political levy, rather than having to opt out as at present. That would indeed have been a radical change that would have significantly reduced the ability of trade unions to donate to the Labour Party and/or run their own political campaigns. You won’t be surprised to learn that Len McCluskey is strongly opposed to that.

But Ed Miliband isn’t proposing that. He is talking about the affiliation fee paid out of the political levy, not the political levy as a whole. Presumably many union members won’t opt in and the Labour Party will receive less income from this source as a result. But this will leave more money in trade union political funds for them to donate to the Labour Party or spend on their own campaigns. Less money will come to the Labour Party automatically; more money will be available to the likes of Len McCluskey to dispense as he and his fellow union leaders see fit. This isn’t solving the problem; it’s making it worse.

And there was another proposal in the speech which worries me. Miliband argued that there should be a limit on MPs’ outside earnings (whose brother was it that was paid a tidy sum to be a director of Sunderland Football Club?). I should make it clear that I don’t have any outside earnings. I find representing a large, diverse urban constituency a full-time job – indeed, more than a full-time job – but nonetheless this proposal worries me. In recent years, we’ve seen an increasing professionalisation of our politics – too many MPs, like Ed Miliband, like me, have worked in politics before becoming MPs. Parliament benefits from having MPs who are still running their own businesses, still practising as doctors. Of course, constituents have a right to know if you are doing other work alongside your role as a Member of Parliament, but surely we can then leave it to them to decide if they are happy with what their Member of Parliament is doing, rather than imposing a blanket ban?

Ed Miliband is right to argue that in the 21st century individual trade union members should get to choose to pay an affiliation fee to the Labour Party, but his proposals will increase his reliance on the likes of Len McCluskey and if he believes in opt in for affiliation fees, then why not for the political levy? And his proposals for a limit on outside earnings could widen the gap between our political class and those we seek to represent. He got better headlines yesterday than he deserved.

This piece was originally published on The Daily Telegraph website on Wednesday 10th July 2013.

Comment on this blog


Readers' Comments

On 12/07/2013 12:57:00 Jim wrote:
It's like they haven't learnt the lessons of the 1970s. Idiots.
On 12/07/2013 16:59:00 Anthony Miller wrote:
But Ed Miliband isn’t proposing that.

He is talking about the affiliation fee paid out of the political levy, not the political levy as a whole.

Presumably many union members won’t opt in and the Labour Party will receive less income from this source as a result.

But this will leave more money in trade union political funds for them to donate to the Labour Party or spend on their own campaigns.

Not quite correct. The coalition is changing the rules on party funding

Are you aware of this potential change in funding law:


“Apparently any money spent by an affiliated union campaigning at an election is to be treated not only as a ‘third party expenditure’ as at present, but also as a Labour party expenditure for the purposes of electoral law. As such, it will count towards the Party’s electoral spending limit.”

That aside if Ed takes less money from the Unions he is wrong and if he does something about it ...it's not enough.

The parismony of spirit in your article and its double sided criticisms are breathtaking.

Labour should stop trying to sweep its association with the Unions under the carpet like it is something to be ashamed of...

Unite held an all member ballot earlier in the year on whether to continue to the political levy or not

(note this is not about affiliation but the concept of putting money aside for political campiagning - as you state).

87.4% of members wanted it to remain.

Although to be fair only 18.6% were bored enough to vote at all.


But that's not enough.

Now we must give individual members the right to opt out of donations to Labour.

Except they already have that right. So we have to give it to them more often...?

Then surely everyone will leave the Unions and they'll stop giving money to Labour.

I dont think you'll behappy till the unions are sending out mailshots telling people affiliation with Labour can cause cancer.

There's nothing in principle wrong either with Unite or anyone else wanting to influence a candidate selectionas long as they do so within the rules - in Falkirk they clearly didn't - but what's common sense got to do with it?

We live in a society where as soon as anything goes wrong we must throw all our babies out with the bathwater in order to be seen to be doing something.

All the statistics from the US show that open primaries are devastating to actual party memberships.

And the Conservative party membership figures since they started open primaries back this up.

Although you can make a case for them in areas where seats are very safe.

But what about for example the Bethnal Green and Bow Primary where all "Rabits Friends and Relations" turned up and you had to run it again?

Primaries are like magic tricks - unless they're properly funded they're a sham - pick any card and you always get the one the political class wanted.

This primary Ed intends for the Mayor of London - what if someone who's not the membership choice wins it.

Will everyone just accept that? Or will it be the Ken Livingstone / Frank Dobson debacle all over again.

Still those who reject OMOV must learn the lessons of a lack of internal democracy again - the hard way.

If people dont want Labour to be funded as much by the Unions any more there are only two real solutions.

State funding of political parties - which I dont think anyone is that keen on or ...

... more individuals donating. Sadly the Labour party doesn't have much money. From Anybody.

No it doesn't. You outspent us by nearly 33% just during the short period of the 2010 General Election.

Where did that money come from? Well, let's not go over all that again ...

Come to that - even Andrew Pelling's Indpendent campaign outspent the local Labour party at the last election.

We can't even get near to spending up to the electoral limit.

The money's got to come from somewhere and as FPTP creates a 2 and a half party system almost everywhere it's run...

...which side do you think the Unions (who founded the party) and going to give their money to?

Interestingly too no one complains about all the shareholders and employees of private companies that corporately donate.

Even though many of them dont get a vote in this...




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