Nothing striking in union funding of political parties
Challenging trade unions’ influence is grotesque when you consider the power of corporate donors
Len McCluskey (left), general secretary of Unite, talks to members of the media at an NHS 65th birthday party in Golden Hill Park, Urmston, Manchester. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire
Earlier this month a storm broke in the British Labour Party about its link with trade unions. It was caused by a row between the party and trade union Unite about the candidate selection process in the Falkirk byelection.
After an incident involving the bulk enlistment of members of the union in the Falkirk constituency Labour party, the local party chairman and the aspiring candidate were suspended and disputed membership applications frozen. An under-pressure Labour leader, Ed Miliband, subsequently promised to reorient the links between the party and the unions.
The nub of Miliband’s proposal is that union affiliation will in future be based not on total membership of the union, but on the number of union members who are also individual members of the Labour Party. The proposal was welcomed by Unite general secretary Len McCluskey. So all is sweetness and light – or is it?
Unions who financially support political parties are legally obliged to use a political fund for this purpose. This dates back to a 1909 British court case known as the Osborne judgment. Every union member must have the right to opt out of a political fund. This puts individual union members in a more powerful position than shareholders who have no say in how the companies they own intervene in the political process.
In Ireland, relatively few unions are affiliated to the Labour Party. But Irish unions already exercise influence in the party only in proportion to the number of party members they have in membership.
Business-funded think tanks
So what has gone wrong with the relationship between the British Labour Party and its union affiliates? The current controversy has elements of the traditional left-right battle within the British Labour Party. Unite argues that it broke no rules in Falkirk, and that the union’s role in party life is less divisive than that of think tanks such as Progress, established by Peter Mandelson, a close ally of former prime minister Tony Blair, and largely funded by donations from business.
The head of the large GMB union, Paul Kenny, has called for the Progress grouping to be expelled from the party in the same way as the Trotskyite Militant Tendency was expelled in the 1980s. The union accused Progress of attempting to sabotage Labour’s London mayoral selection, and has raised questions about the group’s funding.
The Falkirk controversy is partly about the Labour-union link and partly a result of the culture of politics in the Scottish central belt. But most of it relates to single-seat constituencies.
The combination of single-seat constituencies and the first-past-the-post system creates safe seats, which can be a job for life. This applies as much in Tory shires as in the former heartlands of Scottish industry. A classic product of the culture was Neil Hamilton MP, of the “cash for questions” scandal. Safe seats weaken the grip of voters on electoral power, something that advocates of electoral reform in Ireland often overlook.