State-Funded Political Parties Is the Solution

Article excerpt

Labour and the unions

Not for the first time, a still, small voice of sanity from John Prescott. Scarcely noticed amid the echoing roars of recrimination during the weekend, over Ed Miliband's collision with Unite's leader Len McCluskey, the Labour peer renewed his call for state funding of political parties on the grounds that "whether it is a rich union or a rich businessman, in parties they should not be dictating what they think is the position".

Prescott understands better than most one of the paradoxes of the years he lived through as Deputy Prime Minister. No Labour leader before or since took less account of the view of union leaders than Tony Blair - probably rather less than Prescott himself would have liked. But at the same time, remarkably little was done during the Blair years to reform the unions' institutional leverage in the party.

It's hardly Blair's doing that Ed Miliband didn't see earlier that exactly because of the role played by the unions in his own election as leader, he would be under mounting pressure to put in train some of the reforms he is expected to foreshadow in his big speech today. Or that Labour has not found the additional funding - including from business - that it was so adept at attracting during the Blair years.

But Blair did not, as he might have done, change the electoral college system which gives trade union political-levy payers a one- third say in the choice of leader. And even more relevantly, the Labour government failed, when it had the best opportunity, to reform the system of political funding in a way that might have greatly reduced the crisis it faces today.

When, in 2007, Sir Hayden Phillips' review recommended strict caps on election spending and political donations, coupled with an additional 25m of state funding, the idea was stillborn, partly because of Cabinet opposition, reportedly led by Gordon Brown, to a reduction in union funding.

One of the myths generated by the present row is that any change to the supposedly immutable 113-year old union-party relationship is a precursor to ending it. Until, and including, the election of Michael Foot, MPs alone chose the leader, to take a single example. Another is that the only way to widen the class base of parliamentary candidates is for greater union involvement. Official 2012 statistics on much reduced and increasingly white-collar union membership show that 52 per cent of those in TUC affiliated unions have either a degree or another higher-education qualification. Moreover, the party's founding fathers could never have envisaged a pace of mergers which would give three big affiliates - including Unite - a near monopoly of big union contributions. …