Labour leader Ed Miliband has been variously described as both brave and foolhardy for his efforts to change the funding link between his party and the trade union movement. He’s said he wants funding from unions to be by the mechanism of individual members opting in. Brave, because the resultant drop in funding will reduce Labour’s reliance on the unions and consequently their influence on the party, for a long time now seemingly an unwelcome shadow looming over everything the party does. Foolhardy, because Labour already struggle to pay their bills and losing an estimated 70% of donations to the party threatens their very existence.
This analysis ignores some important points however. Firstly, that Labour have hardly been slavish promoters of the trade union agenda for some time now. Not to put too fine a point on it, the unions don’t get much bang for their buck as it is. Admittedly you’d never know that by reading the papers or watching TV but Labour ceased to be the political representation of trade unions over 20 years ago. The political link was broken, though the funding remained. The change will go down well with those – almost exclusively non-supporters – who believe the unions still pull the strings of the Labour Party, but there will be no real effect on Labour’s policies or priorities. Secondly, Miliband doesn’t believe Labour will go to the wall. He’s not doing this in expectation of the catastrophe of bankruptcy and being unable to campaign. So what’s going on?
The cosy Westminster consensus of centre-right parties won’t want to see Labour disappear from the political landscape. That would leave a vacuum which could be filled by a party or parties more likely to attempt to break that consensus. Both major parties also believe their funding arrangements are a weak spot. Both Labour and Conservatives are aware that they are heavily criticised by the other side for the make up of their donors. Labour are perceived as controlled by unions, while the Tories are viewed as being in thrall to the rich, the party of the 1%. If Labour’s accounts were to fail to balance they wouldn’t just walk off into the sunset, the argument for state funding of the political parties would be reignited. Up to now it hasn’t happened because of public disapproval of such a plan but in the face of crisis the parties would be very happy to push it through.
I find it sad that Labour are unable to defend their funding arrangements, as if there’s something wrong with ordinary people paying a pound or two to ensure their needs and priorities aren’t forgotten in a political arena dominated by people entirely different to them and with no experience and no clue for the most part how the majority of the electorate live their lives. Maybe there’s something to be said for cleaning up the perception of union funding, purely to prevent it becoming a rod to beat the recipient with. The requirement for an individual to opt-in to political funding does make it very difficult to criticise that funding, though the Tories would try anyway. As the unions one after another begin to announce reduced funding for Labour, the likelihood increases that this “cleaned up” funding will end up to the benefit of another party. Not only might Labour’s funding changes result in state political funding, it may also end in the unions diverting what funds they continue to donate to a party more closely aligned to their concerns and principles. Breaking the funding link is explicitly for the purpose of breaking the political link. If Labour feel the need to protect themselves from accusations of sharing a political destiny with the unions, then the unions for their part will no doubt wish to look elsewhere for a new political partner.