4 Sep 2013

Labour set to pay political price for union funding row

The significance is probably more political than financial. The loss of £1.1m a year, as the GMB cuts its affiliation figures from 420,000 to just 50,000, will be a blow to the Labour Party, but not devastating.

And even if all the other 13 affiliated unions cut affiliations to the same degree, the party would lose about £7m in all. Again, it would not cripple the party.

What’s more, Ed Miliband knows that his own plans to reform the union link would also involve a big fall in income, perhaps of that kind of magnitude, at least in the short term.

Indeed, the GMB seems deliberately have tailored its figures to show what effect the Miliband plans to confine union affiliations to those trade unionists who “opt” in to party membership might have.

They say the 50,000 is the number of GMB members who said, at the time of the 2010 Labour leadership election, that they were committed to Labour and interested in joining the party.

More telling perhaps is that the GMB decision seems to reflect the huge anger within Labour’s unions at the way Ed Miliband suddenly announced this summer he wanted to reform the union link, without having warned or consulted them.

And union leaders are upset that Miliband seemed to have reacted in quick response – panic even – to the crisis over the selection process in Falkirk, where two leaders figures in Unite were accused of signing up new members without their knowledge (though Labour’s never published its report on the affair).

Whether others will now follow the GMB isn’t clear.  Leaders of affiliated unions were being remarkably unanimous in their silence today.

But in the long term many union officials may be attracted in following the GMB simply because it would suddenly release extra funds which they could instead spend on industrial matters, or other kinds of political campaigning.

Labour had hoped to avoid lots of public wrangling on the this issue by getting its former general-secretary Lord (Ray) Collins to deliver an interim report to the annual conference in Brighton at the end of September, and then making the decisions at a special conference next March.

Now the issue looks set to overshadow both the TUC conference in Bournemouth next week, and Labour’s conference two weeks later, when Ed Miliband had his colleagues had hoped to impress us with lots of dazzling new policies.

Finally, let me scotch a myth.

Journalists often say that somewhere between 75 per cent and 90 per cent of Labour Party income comes from the unions.  That’s rubbish.

People have misled by the fact that around 75 per cent of the BIG donations – registered with the Electoral Commission – are from the unions.  But Labour gets a lot more money from other sources, especially small donations from individual supporters.  Of Labour’s £28m turnover last year, about £9m – around 30 per cent – came from union sources.  It baffles me how Labour has failed to get this fact across to the media.

(You can see the latest breakdown for January-March 2013 in these figures from the Electoral Commission)

Which prompts the question: if Labour losts all its union money, could it survive on a turnover of just £19m? Of course it could.  The Lib Dems survive on just a fraction of that sum.

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