Brown plans new curbs on unions' political voice, and paves way for Tories to do worse

Submitted by AWL on 7 December, 2007 - 8:20 Author: Chris Reynolds

Gordon Brown has responded to the funding scandals by reopening the question of increased state funding for political parties, and curbs on trade unions' rights to fund political parties. His speech to the Labour Party National Policy Forum at the start of December is reproduced in full on the Labour Party website.

For informative background from Peter Kenyon's blog, click here.

Brown's speech was vague, and according to comrades who were at the National Policy Forum, no precise proposals were put to the Forum.

The best guess seems to be that Brown will go for:
- Some harmless reforms of the type of more information to union levy-payers, and unions' affiliations to the Labour Party to be on the actual number of levy-payers, rather than (as at present) an arbitrary number which can be much higher or much lower than the number of levy-payers;
- An increase in state funding;
- Union affiliation money to the Labour Party still to be admissible, on the basis that it is an aggregating of small donations, but separate donations from the unions to the Labour Party to be curbed by a ceiling.

State funding is, in effect, a proposal to sustain a special caste of established politicians in their places at the financial expense of the taxpayer and at the political expense of new or less established parties. We oppose it on principle.

Provision for parties to make free election broadcasts, or have free mailings, is a different matter, and indeed should be more widely available.

Workers' Liberty has for several years opposed unions paying extra money to the Labour Party (centrally, or to non-left MPs's constituencies) over and above their affiliation money. But a law to prohibit such extra money is another thing. It would also block the unions from giving money to a new workers' party.

Moreover, if Brown pushes through this reform without agreement from the Tories, as he indicates he may do, that could well pave the ground for the next Tory government to go further and ban union affiliations to political parties outright. Again, that would hit not only union funding for New Labour, but union funding for any new workers' party.

The Tory policy - a cap of £50,000 on all donations - is simple, clear, and populist, and would suit the Tories themselves very well. The Tories have much more support in the category of small business people who might give £50,000 (but not more) than the Lib Dems or Labour, so even if the cap hit their budget, it would hit the other parties' budgets much more.

On face of it, the mere fact that raising this issue is likely to be a vote-loser for him should deter Brown. The other factor in the situation, though, is that the Labour Party is in dire financial straits. According to the Daily Telegraph (3 December), when the scandal over David Abrahams' £600,000 broke and Labour ministers started saying that the cash would have to be paid back, "party officials warned that, if this happened, it was hard to see how staff would be paid over the next few months". Of course the Telegraph is biased: but insider reports suggest it is not far wrong on this.

According to the BBC, the review carried out (on government initiative) by Hayden Phillips recommended capping spending for political campaigns as well as capping individual donations - set, after a transitional period - at £50,000. This would include trade unions, but affiliation fees from members would be exempt, treated as individual donations. He also suggested increasing state funding by £25m a year, linked to public support. He also recommended cutting spending by the largest parties between elections.

Labour wanted a small increase in state funding, stringent caps on spending and voluntary caps to be placed on donations by each party. The Tories called for a large increase in state funding for all parties with more than two Commons seats, a cap of £50,000 on all donations, and tax relief for donations. Tory leader David Cameron backs a cap on spending for general election campaigns, but not a year-by-year spending cap. The Lib Dems wanted limited state funding for parties, national caps on annual donations and a lower cap on general election spending.

According to comrades who were at the National Policy Forum, the trade-union response there was very weak. No report of the National Policy Forum has yet appeared on the two websites which normally inform Labour Party and affiliated trade union members about such things, Ann Black's and the CLPD's, which indicates some lack of urgency from what remains of the Labour left, too. (Shouldn't the Labour Party's own head office inform members about the debates at the Policy Forum? You must be joking! This is the new, modernised, Blair-Brown Labour Party!)

We should sound the alarm in the unions. This is an issue that concerns all workers who want their unions to have the right to a voice in politics, and not just Labour Party supporters. Unless we are vigilant, we could see laws curbing unions' political freedoms pushed through as smoothly as Gordon Brown's Bournemouth rule changes to remove all political decision-making power from Labour Party conference.

Soft-left MPs Jon Cruddas and Jon Trickett have written an article in the New Statesman with strong words against New Labour - the title is "How New Labour turned toxic" - but very weak positive politics.

Once the Blair government took power, they write, the essentials of its approach became clear: from the commercialisation of public services to flexible labour markets, on through soaring executive pay and on in turn to party funding, big business and the politics of the market had taken pole position... The life of the party has been purposefully sucked from it. The... NEC is kept permanently in the dark; and the role of conference as a decision-making body has recently been brought to an end. Talk to the members Labour has remaining, and it becomes clear: the notion of an engaged, democratic party looks either dead or on life support.

All true: but what do Cruddas and Trickett propose? More of the same old line of hoping, or at least insinuating, that Brown will be not as bad as Blair. (Both Cruddas and Trickett backed Brown for leader).

The Blairites... want the link with the unions broken for ever, they shriek, as if Brown were really different from Blair on this, and as if Brown hasn't already broken the link in the most important direction, the direction that allowed political input from the unions into the Labour Party! Their battle-cry is: The retention of the union link is a red line that cannot be crossed. But all that means is that they want to retain the facility for the unions to give money to New Labour without having any political voice in return - taxation without representation!

Actually there is no reason to suppose that "the Blairites" are any keener to dispense with this no-obligations, nothing-in-return money from the unions than Brown is. Why would they be? But Brown is paving the way for the Tories to ban that financing, and in doing so to close a door on a whole range of future political activity by the unions.

Brown declared: Questions have been raised about updating the legislation of the 1980s in respect of political funds.

All reports show that this system has been free of abuse.

And following his detailed consultations, the second Hayden Phillips report proposes specific changes.

In addition to what he says on donations, he proposes clearer information on the membership form including the choice currently available to join, or not to join the political fund.

He proposes annual reports to members, and he proposes a clear one-for-one link between the number of political levy payers and the numbers affiliated to the Labour Party – all measures important to modernising the relationship.

Because I believe it is now time to move forward, I believe our party should now discuss and agree reform and how best to make change work.

Since the 1970s the provision of ‘Short Money’ and ‘Cranborne Money’ has provided public funds to the main opposition parties. So the principle of public funding of our democracy is already being implemented.

And all political parties have had the opportunity of free television and radio time, along with free postage.

The Short funding has increased more than fourfold since 1997. This year, the total amount of short money was £6.6m, with over £4.5m being paid to the Conservative Party.

While I myself need to be convinced that there would be public acceptance of extensions, I recognise that this will be a source of continuing consultation.

So the Hayden Philips proposals this autumn represent a comprehensive framework for reform.

Indeed, at various times all political parties have welcomed the framework.

I am in no doubt that it is time to move forward.

Having, in the Queen’s Speech promised proposals on party finance and expenditure, we should progress to the next stage on the basis of this framework of reform.

Jack Straw will now consult on the way forward.

It would be best for the standing of politics as a whole, that all can come to an agreement across party lines on the changes that are necessary.

We would all prefer all-party consensus, but we will not accept one party deadlock— a breakdown that serves only to block progress.

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