Opt in – Ed Miliband needs to think again

Ed MilibandIt 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.

31 comments on “Opt in – Ed Miliband needs to think again

  1. Vanya on said:

    #1 Unfortunately your article, while possibly more correct than Andy’s assertion about UNISON, doesn’t clarify what %ge of the membership (a) Have opted to pay into the Labour Party, (b) have opted to pay the political levy but not pay towards the LP, (c) have opted to do neither.

  2. Jon Rogers: Andy, it’s not correct that nearly two thirds of UNISON members “opt out”. They simply choose to pay (or are allocated) to the “General Political Fund” which does not support Labour. I

    The mistake os from pete Murphey’s article, where he makes schoolboy maths errors, that i took at face value. I am well aware of how UNISON’s scheme works.

    The correct calculations, based upon the figures in the Certification Officers report:

    http://www.certoffice.org/CertificationOfficer/files/b0/b0c8617a-750d-49ab-95f1-30ede8812a6f.pdf

    are that a hefty 35.3% of UNISON members have opted out of paying into the political fund. By comparison, only 4.1% of GMB members opt out and 33.7% of Unite members.

    My broad point remains that UNISN members are MUCH MORE likely than GMB members to opt out of the general political fund.

  3. Uncle Albert on said:

    ” this [the opt in] gives no recognition to the reservoir of shared good will among union members towards the Labour Party”

    Perhaps this is the intentional – Miliband may have concluded that the Union vote, and money, will only hinder his ambitions for Labour.

  4. daniel young on said:

    Whats your wage,none of your business.Do you pay a union fee.None of your business.Do you think that the Union aided your wage payment.None of your business.Do you think that a Union, should support political Parties.None of your business.

  5. Karl Stewart on said:

    Uncle Albert: Miliband may have concluded that the Union vote, and money, will only hinder his ambitions for Labour.

    If EdM’s reached that conclusion, then he’s much mistaken. As my union’s GS Paul Kenny has rightly pointed out, this will lead to at least a 90 per cent fall in ‘affiliation fees’ to Labour and if only around 10 per cent or so of union members (probably even less than that) are actively supporting Labour, then there’s no way separate donations (which Labour ususally ask for come election time) will be justifiable.

    As well as the separate donations, there is the huge logictical support that affiliated unions willingly give Labour at election times too – that’ll go as well.
    It all adds up to a huge and unexpected financial boost to the unions – and a corresponding huge financial and logistical black hole for Labour.

    Don’t underestimate the extent to which many unions’ internal budgets are already under severe strain.

    If there’s a financial windfall to be had, then those responsible for the various internal departmental budgets within trade unions – for organising, education, communications, and the whole range of direct member benefits, activities of lay officials, costs of pay ballots, etc – will very quickly move to stake their claims for extra money to fund these absoutely essential member services.

    And then anyone in the future trying to argue for huge donations to the Labour Party will be met with the response: “So should we end our services to members? Should we sack our staff? Should we stop funding organising and recruitment activities? Or training for lay reps?

    The cash that’s now being given to the Labour Party will never be available for the Labour Party again.

    Unions giving their members’ money to the Labour Party has continued to happen all these years through inertia and a fear of change, but it’s essentially illogical and there are no real positive arguments for it.

    To me, it’s a bit like the smoking ban – there are no real positive arguments in favour of smoking are there?

  6. daniel young on said:

    How cool was Dave.Stand by his belief and wage.Put to shame some of this text book socialist minds on this line.Them that ridicule those that do not fit in their so called socialist understanding.”should that be egit bigotry”.hEH! get the hammer for that truth.

  7. daniel young on said:

    Karl Stewart,

    Karl Stewart,

    What cloak are you wearing.We need you and your mind, that is where we come from.Can you with your funds help us.’ HEH! unions come on get real”.We do need your financial support.Do they ballot their members about that.Unions ,come on, are they not living in the past.

  8. John Boadle on said:

    Dave Nellist wasn’t the only MP to follow the ‘worker’s wage’ policy. There were three Labour MP’s elected who were with the ‘Militant’ (now Socialist Party). The other two were Terry Fields (Liverpool Broad Green) and Pat Wall (Bradford). If you follow Jimmy Haddow’s link (some of you would rather crawl across broken glass, obviously ) the BBC interview explains how the policy was applied. Coventry SE LP used to write to the engineering union each year and they supplied figures for what a skilled worker was getting at the major local factories. This averaged out as about 40-45% of an MP’s salary, so Dave collected the full amount and the surplus 55-60% was distributed to strike funds, community and labour movement campaigns. This was all done accountably to the CLP’s management committee, who consistently saw all the paperwork regarding Dave’s salary, donations and expenses. Any Labour or union member, constituent or journalist was welcome to see it if they asked. I know because I was on the CLP committee at the time.

    Pat Wall used a very similar approach. In Terry Fields’ case it was applied slightly differently: he was a firefighter when elected, so he continued to draw the exact same wage as a firefighter, with the surplus being distributed. None of them were particularly hard up under this policy; they got a decent wage by local standards and claimed reimbursement of genuine out-of-pocket expenses. But no more, and no less.

    Sadly Pat and Terry both died quite young but Dave Nellist is still active in the SP, TUSC, etc, and after being expelled by Labour was elected as a local Socialist councillor for 14 years. James Landale on the BBC website quoted Dave’s example as a way the present MP’s criticising their forthcoming pay rise could perfectly well forego it. If they are sincere of course.

  9. Karl Stewart on said:

    P Spence,
    It is an excellent piece by JohnH (my former boss by the way!) I particularly like his opening par in which he talks about how we’ve all made stupid thougtless comments, but most of us wake up with the morning’s hangover, realise our mistake and hold our hands up and make amends – but only the really stubbornly dim among us try to brazen it out.

    JohnH’s also right to point out that however much political ground EdM concedes to the Consevatives, they’ll never, ever give up their big business donations and they’ll never agree to state funding, which is indeed deeply unpopular with the public.

    The only small difference I’d have with JohnH is in his conslusion that EdM needs to change course as soon as possible bfore it’s too late. In my opinion, I really think it’s already too late, for the reasons I’ve set out above.

    What EdM’s achieved is to move the ‘disaffiliate from Labour’ debate from the ultra-left fringes of unions – the hardy annual conference motion from a branch run by ‘the Trots’ that gets slaughtered every year – and relocate it into the trade union mainstream.

    EdM’s profound political error – and it’s an error that just seems to get worse the more one considers its implications – has been to turn the ‘disafilliation’ call into a perfectly logical and reasonable position that becomes difficult to credibly resist.

    Another potential development under the individualised, ‘opt-in’ system could be a possible re-emergence of Conservative-supporting trade unionists’ organisations, which could then start to make their own case for party political donations, as could the LibDems and others.

  10. P Spence on said:

    Karl- I’d love to know who EdM took advice from in advance of his Tuesday speech. How can he be allowed as leader to turn up side down the Party’s prime source of funding without any apparent wide consultation? It beggars belief. Labour will now be likely to implement opt in simply because the lose of face for EdM otherwise will be too damaging.

  11. Vanya on said:

    Bob:
    Some clarification here on actual opt out levels as laid out in union annual returns

    http://www.unisonactive.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/political-fund-opt-outs-separating-fact.html

    How many in Unison opt out of paying a political levy at all and how many only opt out of pqaying to the Labour Party?

    I must admit I’m surprised at the number of Unite members opting out. I wonder what will happen when they are given the possibility of paying a levy without any of it going to the LP?

  12. Vanya: How many in Unison opt out of paying a political levy at all and how many only opt out of pqaying to the Labour Party?

    UNISON has one political fund so the exemptions figure relates to both sections of the fund. Twice as many choose the General Fund section over the Labour affiliated section.

  13. Karl Stewart on said:

    Vanya: I wonder what will happen when they are given the possibility of paying a levy without any of it going to the LP?

    That’s an interesting question Van. My guess would be that fewer would opt-out of the political fund in that event.
    Where did the law stand on trade union ‘political funds’ before the 1984 Trade Union Act?
    Was this previously unregulated by law?

  14. Alan Ji on said:

    “Was this previously unregulated by law? ”

    Been regulated by law since the number of voters was smaller than the number of Trade Union members!

  15. Vanya on said:

    #19 My understanding is that there has been a requirement to have a separate fund that members could opt out of for a considerable tim, possibly at least 100 years. The tory government in 1927 in the wake of the general strike, changed it so that members had to opt in, and then this was changed to opt out again in 1945. I may be corrected.

  16. Vanya on said:

    Bob: UNISON has one political fund so the exemptions figure relates to both sections of the fund. Twice as many choose the General Fund section over the Labour affiliated section.

    It would be interesting to know why trade unionists with surficient motivation (I will avoid using the c word) to pay into a political fund would not pay to the Labour Party. In the late 90s and until about 5 years ago I would probably have done so had I been a member of a union where this was possible, and possibly would now the way things are going again. I wonder how many do so out of principle because they don’t think parties should get money from unions, including perhaps some labour supporters, because they are tories or lib dems-but given some of the non party stuff Unison campaigns on that seems unlikely-, how many do so because they think labour doesn’t support them-and what triggered this, eg Labour councils making cuts?-

  17. Vanya on said:

    Vanya: It would be interesting to know why trade unionists with surficient motivation (I will avoid using the c word) to pay into a political fund would not pay to the Labour Party.In the late 90s and until about 5 years ago I would probably have done so had I been a member of a union where this was possible, and possibly would now the way things are going again. I wonder how many do so out of principle because they don’t think parties should get money from unions, including perhaps some labour supporters, because they are tories or lib dems-but given some of the non party stuff Unison campaigns on that seems unlikely-, how many do so because they think labour doesn’t support them-and what triggered this, eg Labour councils making cuts?-

    To clarify, I meant I would have paid into a political fund but not to the Labour Party.

  18. John Grimshaw on said:

    Vanya: It would be interesting to know why trade unionists with surficient motivation (I will avoid using the c word) to pay into a political fund would not pay to the Labour Party.In the late 90s and until about 5 years ago I would probably have done so had I been a member of a union where this was possible, and possibly would now the way things are going again. I wonder how many do so out of principle because they don’t think parties should get money from unions, including perhaps some labour supporters, because they are tories or lib dems-but given some of the non party stuff Unison campaigns on that seems unlikely-, how many do so because they think labour doesn’t support them-and what triggered this, eg Labour councils making cuts?-

    Presumably there are many reasons why trades unionists don’t give money to Labour. Because they don’t have the tradition. Because they are right-wing. Because as you say, they don’t think unions should give money to political parties. Because they are “professionals”. Or because they don’t think its worth it because Labour does “nothing for us”?

  19. uo ante
    Karl Stewart: Where did the law stand on trade union ‘political funds’ before the 1984 Trade Union Act?

    Opting in to political fund payments was a requirement of the hated Trades Disutes Act 1927 (which among other things also effectively outlawed most public sector strikes). The Act was repealled in 1945, restoring status quo ante, which was individual opt out.

  20. John Grimshaw on said:

    Karl Stewart: Where did the law stand on trade union ‘political funds’ before the 1984 Trade Union Act?

    As I understand it the 1984 Act was the “anti-miners act”. The act required all strike action to be decided by secret ballot, that general secretaries etc. be elected every five years and that union funds be validated every ten years. In practice as the miners had not been legally balloted they were not technically considered to be on strike and therefore could not apply for any sort of benefits. The act was repealed in1992 and replaced.

  21. Jara Handala on said:

    In, out, in, out, shake it all about . . . so today’s release of Cabinet papers, under the 30-year rule, shows that Thatcher feared to go where Ed Milipede has boldly gone:

    “Although the prime minister responded by saying she agreed with Mount, his demand to ensure that trade union members had to opt in, rather than opt out of the political levy – as now being contemplated by the Labour leader, Ed Miliband – was regarded as a step too far at that time by Thatcher and Tebbit because it revived the argument about the financing of political parties. The Tories feared it could also lead to a quid pro quo ban on company donations.” (Alan Travis)
    http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/aug/01/margaret-thatcher-trade-union-reform-national-archives

    Besides the capitalist British state providing this service to the labour movement we can also thank the Margaret Thatcher Foundation. This august body has on typewritten foolscap paper Mr Ridley’s report to the grandees. Ripley was a fictional murderer but Ridley helped metaphorically murder the organised working class in Britain. The devil as the Grim Reaper.

    This was an exercise in strategic planning: Ridley chaired the Nationalised Industries Policy Group, & on 8 July 1977 he gave its final report to the Economic Reconstruction Group. A short annex, ‘Countering the Political Threat’, drew a lot of attention when the report was leaked & published in the Economist, 27 May 1978.

    So all senior trade union officials had read it before the Tories won in May 1979. In the mid-1980s I read the ISTC minutes, regionally & nationally, & there was no evidence that they had discussed what the Tories had planned for them:

    “. . . we might try and provoke a battle in a non-vulnerable industry, where we can win. This is what happened when we won against the postal workers in 1971. We could win in industries like the Railways, B.L.M.C. [cars, British Leyland - there must be some SU readers under 50], the Civil Service and Steel. A victory on ground of our choosing would discourage an attack on more vulnerable ground.” (page 24).

    When the 14-week strike started in January 1980 Sirs was 60; now he’s 93.
    http://www.margaretthatcher.org/archive/displaydocument.asp?docid=110795
    http://fc95d419f4478b3b6e5f-3f71d0fe2b653c4f00f32175760e96e7.r87.cf1.rackcdn.com/FABEA1F4BFA64CB398DFA20D8B8B6C98.pdf (Ridley’s report – which also details how to prepare for a miners’ strike)

    Wow, what a nice large window too! Respect! (Unintended pun.)