Rejoice, rejoice! The first step in the death of the Labour Party

9 07 2013

I cannot believe it.

In response to Labour’s Falkirk selection kerfuffle, Ed Miliband is to scrap the historic automatic funding of Labour by members of affiliated unions.

Instead of members of Unite, Unison and other Labour-linked unions automatically paying a fee towards the party’s funds unless they opt out, they will in future only fund the party if they specifically say they wish to.

That may sound technical, but the expected impact is dramatic. As the BBC reports: “The fees are worth about £8m a year to Labour. Insiders estimate making them non-automatic would cost the party about £5m.”

Let me be clear – this is the first step in the death of the Labour Party.

For those of us who’ve long wanted the trade unions to ditch their abusive relationship with Labour, a party that repeatedly takes their money with one hand whilst slapping them in the face with the other, breaking this funding link has been priority number one for years.

I remember seeing ‘Free the Funds’ campaigns more than ten years ago.

Deadbeat union bosses have regularly gone to war with their own union activists who dared suggest such a thing, so determined are they to keep wasting members’ money funding Labour’s endless rightward shifts.

Indeed, Unison regularly harasses, defames and expels committed union members for the crime of questioning why their union funds a party that consistently acts against their interests.

And now Labour have gone and done it themselves. All of a sudden, a Westminster silly season story of precious little interest to the public has had a game-changing effect.

Game-changing as in scoring a massive own goal.

Decisively making the wrong decisions

Perhaps Ed Miliband got spooked by all the whispering that he’s not a decisive leader. Britain’s political culture tends to overvalue ‘decisiveness’ at the expense of sound judgement – one of the reasons we tend to elect leaders who announce big changes that invariably fall flat on their face.

Whatever the reason, Ed has certainly acted decisively, but he’s made what – for his party – is completely the wrong decision.

It is no exaggeration to describe this as the single biggest blunder by a British political leader in living memory.

Let me explain.

For nearly 20 years at least, Labour has tried to define itself against the trade unions. Sometimes the intention (as now) was spin for the benefit of the right-wing press, at other times it was ideological – but the policy effect was always the same. Union members – as public sector workers, low-paid workers, or staff engaged in industrial disputes – took the hit.

Meanwhile, Labour-affiliated trade unions bankrolled the party. Even while Blairism got the corporate cheques rolling in, union funding was a key plank of party finances. It was a one-way bet that the unions always lost – I struggle to think of a single beneficial policy that union funding secured since the minimum wage fifteen years ago – but nostalgia, inertia and tribalism kept the funds flowing.

For a while this uneven relationship was assuaged by the public sector pay rises fuelled by the fruits of the Blair-Brown property bubble, but even during the so-called ‘years of plenty’, there was plenty of disquiet among rank and file union members. The Fire Brigades Union disaffiliated in 2004 after a bruising national strike against the Labour government. The RMT was kicked out after it supported non-Labour candidates in Scotland. Unison’s attack dogs were regularly unleashed on activists who called for the Labour link to be broken.

For the unions it made no sense. For Labour it was the longest free lunch in history.

But if union members gained so little from funding Labour, why did they do it?

Just another box on the form

Call it the path of least resistance. Doing something is harder than not doing it. Signing up for an organ donor card is harder than not. Just as, in a theoretical opt-out system, choosing not to hold an organ donor card would be harder than the status quo of holding one.

It’s the same with trade union members funding Labour. At present, the unions operate an opt-out system – a union member is automatically assumed to be willing to fund Labour unless they specifically tick the opt-out box.

Under Ed Miliband’s proposal, this will be reversed – each member will fund Labour only if they specifically tick the box to do so.

Some of those members will just not even read that part of the membership form. Many more will take one look, consider what the austerity-supporting, welfare-bashing, cuts-promising Labour Party offers them, and decline.

It’s a small shift that will cost Labour £5m – nearly two-thirds of the money currently raised by opt-out affiliation fees.

And for the Labour Party itself, it’s lunacy.

We hate ourselves and we want to die

Ed Miliband seems to think that by breaking the automatic link with union members, it will force Labour to do more to engage with union members in order to get them to actually join the party, at which point they would of course fund it. He thinks it will drive an increase in party membership.

In theory that line carries some logic. There’s just one problem. Labour has already committed to take a giant shit on trade union members should it win the next election.

In pledging to stick to Tory spending plans, Labour has in effect pledged to enact more public sector job losses, more cuts to local government funding, more attacks on social security (affecting members of Unite’s laughably hypocritical ‘Community Union’ initiative). It will no longer commit to even slowing austerity; it will not commit to repealing the bedroom tax; it’s not even willing to say whether it would scrap George Osborne’s new seven-day minimum time limit on claiming benefits following redundancy, a measure that will save the Treasury a relative pittance.

If Ed thinks that kind of talk is going to get union members – screw it, anyone at all – joining the party, he’s even more delusional than his two vainglorious predecessors.

Here’s what will really happen.

As expected, party funding from the unions will plummet. The pro-Labour union leaders will stay loyal (whilst pointing more fingers at Labour’s Blairite faction, Progress) but their members will want away. Membership will not rise significantly, and any small rise will be just a flash in a passing pan. Labour will be squeezed for funds at the next election, probably forcing it to solicit more corporate donations.

But that’s just the start. After 2015, amidst the crushing reality of Labour austerity, membership, donations, and union relations will collapse. Much of this would have happened anyway, but by breaking the opt-out funding link with the unions, Ed Miliband has made it far easier for union members to ditch the party; rather than having to force recalcitrant union bosses to break the link, often under threat of expulsion, they can simply vote with their feet. Dave Prentis can talk all he wants about historic links with his Labour brethren – his members will have long since gone their own way.

What a generation of witch-hunted Unison activists have tried and failed to achieve for more than a decade, Ed Miliband has accomplished for them at a stroke.

An act of self-immolation

Cutting the automatic union funding of Labour is the first step in the death of the Labour Party. And for those of us who have wanted this for years, it is a brilliant, brilliant thing.

But that’s because we want to see the death of the Labour Party. How extraordinary that Labour wants to see it too.

This article is written with a doff of the hat to everyone who fought for years to democratise trade union party funding, and who were variously harassed, smeared, abused, humiliated and expelled for it. You won in the end.