It is well worth reading Pete Murphy’s article over at Union News about the trade union political funds. Apparently, figures from the Trade Union Certification Officer show a sharp rise in spending on political campaigning work, which includes major demonstrations such as TUC-led protests in March 2011 and October 2012. The full report is available on the Certification Office website: www.certoffice.org
It is important to understand the distinction that the maintenance of seperate political funds by trade unions is a legislative requirement, as is the statutory provision for individuals to be able to opt out of paying into that fund; but the decision whether or not to donate money to the Labour Party is a voluntary arrangement governed only by the rule books of individual unions and the Labour Party itself[Correction, the calculations in Pete Murphy's article are incorrect - the right figures are as follows] The most interesting statistic is that although UNISON has the largest political fund, a hefty 35.3% of their members have opted out of paying into the political fund. By comparison, only 4.1% of GMB members opt out and just 4.7% of USDAW members.
Unison’s particular arrangment is a product of its particular history, that on amalgamation in 1993, CoHSE and NUPE were affiliated to the party, but NALGO was not: this led to the differentiation between Unison’s general political fund and its seperately managed Labour Link fund. Members can opt to contribute to the general fund only, to both funds or to neither. This arrangement is one that has been decided upon by Unison’s own membership.
GMB affiliates some 400000 members to the Labour Party, roughly two thirds of the membership, in recognition of the diversity of political views among GMB’s own membeship; which means that individuals can pay into the political fund and yet know that not every political fund payer is contributing to a party they don’t necessarily support.
Pete Willsman makes the very interesting point that:
There are probably 60,000 levy-payers who are already individual members of the party. That’s 2% of union members — already five times the proportion of the population over 16 who are currently members of Labour. Union members do vote Labour at twice the national average rate (37.5% of Unite members compares with 19% of the population voting Labour in 2010). If Paul Kenny is right and was able to persuade 10% of GMB members to opt-in as members, that would be 25 times the national average. But that would bring in only about about the same number of extra associate members as we currently have individual members.
This reinforces the argument that there is considerable overlap in values between trade union activists and the Labour Party, reflected in considerably higher support for the party than from the general population. It is therefore understandable that this affinity of values is currently demonstrated by the unions’ collective decision making processes deciding to support the Labour Party.
It also shows that Paul Kenny is right to say that there is a difference between supporting the party, and wishing to join it.
If Ed Miliband’s “opt in” proposals go through, requiring unions to only affiliate the number of members who have consciously decided they want to pay money to Labour, then this gives no recognition to the reservoir of shared good will among union members towards the Labour Party – however stretched that goodwill may sometimes become.
Of course, unions can still make voluntary contributions beyond the affiliation fees, but that has two problems inherent. i) that if only 5% of members opt in, then the mandate to support Labour is diminished; and ii) funding Labour through increasing ad-hoc voluntary contributions is even more vulnerable to accusations of buying favours.