Britain’s Labour Considers Severing Ties with Unions

Ed Miliband’s proposed reforms put £8 million in annual union contributions to the Labour Party at risk.

British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband answers questions from reporters, May 3
British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband answers questions from reporters, May 3 (Paul Bednall)

British politics has always been a world relying perhaps on less what you know and more on who you know — and how much money they can get you. Remember David Cameron’s election advisor who was revealed as a lobbyist for tobacco, oil and gas companies? And the “cash for access” dinner parties held at 10 Downing Street under most prime ministers? Ministers and civil servants are locked in a whirligig of revolving door corruption. No sooner is one cleared than another rears its head.

Another such scandal was revealed last week when it transpired that the country’s biggest trade union, Unite, had secretly signed its members up to the Labour Party to try to get their favorite candidate elected for the Scottish Lowlands constituency of Falkirk. The meddling in the selection process highlighted the union’s frustration with Labour in which it believes that, despite contribution millions of pounds to the party every year, it doesn’t have enough of a say.

Historically, the Conservatives relied on donations from landowners and merchants while Labour depended on money from the unions. That relationship was always more testy when the unions tried to influence the party’s politics. Sometimes, they were successful — if not always to Labour’s political benefit.

Unite’s 1.4 million members pay 66 pence per month into its political fund unless they opt out. The fund had accumulated £7 million in savings last year. Just over £3 million of that went to Labour in affiliation fees. In return, the union gets a say in policymaking and choosing the Labour leader, a vote that proved crucial in securing Ed Miliband the leadership over his brother David three years ago.

The scandal goes deeper than candidate selection and party funding. Union members are, by default, affiliated with Labour. The Conservatives have long been critical of that arrangement and now Ed Miliband wants to change it as well in favor of an “opt in” system. Union members would have to “deliberately” chose to fund his party. That puts £8 million in annual contributions from the trade unions at risk and would mark the most radical internal party reform in twenty years.

Miliband tried to deflect criticism in Parliament on Wednesday when he berated Prime Minister David Cameron whose party, he said, is “funded by a few millionaires at the top.” There is some truth to that statement. Fifteen families, or “donor groups,” account for up to a third of donations to the Conservatives. It seems both parties rely on a limited donor base.

Which is why the scandal is also a reminder of how unrepresentative British politics has become. Less than one in ten of Labour’s parliamentarians is still from a manual occupation whereas in 1979, the year it lost power to Margaret Thatcher, four out of ten were. Yet still a third of the British population is employed in manual labor.

While the Conservatives do not perhaps have such a class problem, ranging from the famous “nation of shopkeepers” to the landed earls and lords, they are still confined to the south of the country and seen as the nasty party in the north. Only if they fix this divide, they might have a mandate to repair the nation as a whole.

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