The dangers of “opt in”

Jon Lansman is well worth reading on the implications of “opt in”, in this well considered article at Left Futures.

In any negotiations it is important to understand what is of crucial value to you and the people you are negotiating across the table with. What is important to the trade unions is that they keep a mechanism of participation structured into the Labour Party, with a role in regional boards, PPC selections, internal elections and policy forums, etc. That mechanism needs to reflect the representative democracy of the unions, so that unions continue to participate in party based upon their own collective decision making processes, and so that union activists and officials have a direct voice in the party without having to carry a dual burden of trade union and individual party activism.

The control of 50% of votes at Labour Party conference, still the soveriegn rule making body in the party, is necessary for the unions to ensure that, in the final resort, the Labour Party does not transform itself irrevocably into a party in which unions have no influence. Remember that more than once the trade unions have provided the balast that has saved the Labour Party from itself, and provided a link to the aspirations and concerns of millions of working people.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning, GMB general secretary Paul Kenny was clear that a reasonable expectation, based upon postal vote participation in union internal elections, and on the lack of enthusiasm for the Labour Party from union members, would mean that around 10% of members might opt in. Across all the 15 affiliated unions, then this might mean less than 300000 “opt in” affiliated members, compared to 200000 individual members, buta high proportion of that 200000 are also union members!

The question then is what relationship would those affiliated members have with the party, and whether that is a sufficient foundation for maintaining the unions’ current level of participation in the party. What is more, the level of participation in the Party may drop within the unions to the point, where party membership can no longer plausibly required for participation  in the unions’ political committees. The “opt in” reform is likely to set in motion a spiral of decline and further disengagement.

Ed needs to be very careful not to drag the party into an ill thought out row that will overshadow the next election over an issue that voters don’t care about and leave the party organisationally and ideologically weaker.

33 comments on “The dangers of “opt in”

  1. John on said:

    Ed needs to be very careful not to drag the party into an ill thought out row that will overshadow the next election over an issue that voters don’t care about and leave the party organisationally and ideologically weaker.

    I think he already has. The Tories and Lib Dems will no doubt make this a key plank of their next election campaign. Opt-in may well prove a disaster in terms of the union link with Labour. It will have to replace the collapse in funds from somewhere, which will inevitably see it pitch to the right to compete with the Tories for the financial seal of approval from the business community.

  2. james? on said:

    i have begun to wonder if labour could replace the union money i actually think it cant with out the unions labours revenue stream would be similair to the lib dems we would end up with a situation in which no one could compete with the torys nationally. in tory no go areas labour would find them selves with out the option of out spending the likes of ukip, bnp on their right and greens, respect, plaid cymru, snp on their left.
    i am amazed that labour are risking finnancial suicide.

  3. John Grimshaw on said:

    james?,

    In theory at least unions would be able to make donations to the LP from their political funds, but as Kenny points out this AM that might become difficult if so few ordinary trades union members don’t opt in. Kenny seems to be saying that if the number of affiliates became so low then the union may have to consider disaffiliation, although this could be scare tactics.

  4. Uncle Albert on said:

    John: Tories and Lib Dems will make this a key plank of their next election campaign

    There already are indications that the relationship between unions and Labour is to become a key plank in their campaign. If Ed plays this right he should be able to turn tables on the Tories and expose the links between the Tories and their corporate sponsors.

    If funds to Labour do significantly diminish this will be a reflection of an already moribund TU relationship in terms of mass participation. For Labour to be invigourated options for meaningful participation must be developed and extended but, most of all, this will require changes within the Labour Party.

    Tom Watson’s reflections on his debate with Owen Jones at Glastonbury are pertinent:

    “Three hundred people attended an open meeting in Billy Bragg’s Leftfield to discuss the left’s response to austerity. Almost to a man, woman and child the people wanted me to give them the route map back to supporting and believing in Labour. Yet I couldn’t traverse the chasmic gap between the words coming out of my mouth and the voices in my head.”

    If Labour refuses to offer that route map then, no matter how well funded, the decline in voter turn-out will continue.

    http://noisey.vice.com/en_uk/blog/glastonbury-dispatches-tom-watson-mp

  5. John Grimshaw on said:

    Uncle Albert: If Ed plays this right he should be able to turn tables on the Tories and expose the links between the Tories and their corporate sponsors.

    What does this mean? These links don’t need exposing they’re are already there for all to see. Does Milliband think that by playing the “honest broker” over union affiliation that the Tories will pat him on the back and agree to contribution capping or state funding?

  6. Lewisham Left Lawyer on said:

    Uncle Albert,

    Ed M won’t go hard against corporate funding of the Tories. Possibly he can’t.

    He and the other tops want that corporate funding too. Look at the money that flowed into Labour when it started to look likely to beat the Tories in 1997. And the policies that came with it, PFI, privatisation and the banking bubble being at the top of the list.

    No doubt Milliband would rather have big business money as well as union money. The way he’s going he will need big business money instead of union money.

  7. John on said:

    Lewisham Left Lawyer: Ed M won’t go hard against corporate funding of the Tories. Possibly he can’t

    He went hard on it at today’s PMQs. In fact he got well and truly stuck into the Tories over their links to hedge funds and the rich. It was a very impressive performance from the Labour leader, all told. No matter, the Tories and right wing of the PLP have scored a significant victory this week.

  8. Uncle Albert on said:

    John Grimshaw: they’re are already there for all to see.

    They are there but not all are seeing them.

    Ed went big on this today at PMQs and had Cameron getting very hot and bothered. Ed should go much further to bring the issue to popular prominence in the public domain – that’s what I mean by ‘expose the links’.

  9. Vanya on said:

    #7 What is a “top”?

    #9 Exactly. There is too much assumption on the left that all the iniquities in this society are common knowledge.

  10. Stephen on said:

    This is primarily aimed at reducing the institutional weight of TU’s in the party.

    Issues around how labour will fund itself are secondary.

    As to how we ( ie those not on board with the Tony Blair, David Cameron, Lord Sainsbury, Alex Salmond , Peter Taafe etc project of breaking the link) should begin to respond. Ken Livingstone has a very good piece at Labour List.

    http://labourlist.org/2013/07/the-left-needs-to-initiate-its-own-debate-on-delivering-mass-party/

  11. Vanya on said:

    Apologies if this has already been raised, but could anyone confirm whether the rule that allows unions to pay new LP members’ subs for a year was brought in under Blair. I was told this today by a mate of mine who’s a CWU official and LP GC delegate.

  12. Vanya on said:

    Uncle Albert: If funds to Labour do significantly diminish this will be a reflection of an already moribund TU relationship in terms of mass participation. For Labour to be invigourated options for meaningful participation must be developed and extended

    Very good point, whether this is feasible or not.

    If the real organic link between masses of individuals and the party they are helping to fund is so weak that it will collapse as soon as those individuals actually have to think about it, then the issue precisely is about winning hearts and minds.

    And presumably those who think that political representation should be through a new political formation will be competing on a more equal footing (or ought to be if their projects are in any way credible, given that this is about politics as much as organisation).

  13. George Hallam on said:

    Vanya: If the real organic link between masses of individuals and the party they are helping to fund is so weak that it will collapse as soon as those individuals actually have to think about it, then the issue precisely is about winning hearts and minds.

    There is no direct link, organic or otherwise, between “masses of individuals” and the Labour Party.

  14. Vanya on said:

    George Hallam: There is no direct link, organic or otherwise, between “masses of individuals” and the Labour Party.

    Wrong. Several million trade union members pay into a political fund from which a sizeable amount of money is paid to the Labour Party, and on the basis of which they are able to vote in Labour Party elections. Such people were responsible for the factt that Ed Milliband is Labour Party leader.

    You can have a semantic argument as to whether that counts as direct if you want. Or whether several million counts as masses. I’d rather not.

  15. George Hallam on said:

    Vanya: Several million trade union members pay into a political fund from which a sizeable amount of money is paid to the Labour Party, and on the basis of which they are able to vote in Labour Party elections. Such people were responsible for the factt that Ed Milliband is Labour Party leader.
    You can have a semantic argument as to whether that counts as direct if you want. Or whether several million counts as masses. I’d rather not.

    I quiet understand your reluctance.

    direct
    Adjective
    Extending or moving from one place to another by the shortest way without changing direction or stopping.

    Adverb
    With no one or nothing in between.

    Verb
    Control the operations of; manage or govern.

    Synonyms
    adjective. straight – straightforward – immediate – frank

    adverb. directly – straight – right – immediately

    You said

    Vanya: Several million trade union members pay into a political fund from which a sizeable amount of money is paid to the Labour Party..

    As everybody active in the trades union movement knows, only a minority of members are involved in union affairs on a regular basis. Most members who pay the political levy are only vaguely aware that they are contributing money to the Labour Party. It certainly doesn’t translate into votes for the Labour Party.

    Dismissing this fact as a “semantic argument” is unconvincing, to say the least.

  16. Vanya on said:

    #18 George, if you look at what you quoted in the context of what I also said, perhaps you will see just how pathetically semantic this argument really is.

  17. George Hallam on said:

    Vanya: #18 George, if you look at what you quoted in the context of what I also said, perhaps you will see just how pathetically semantic this argument really is.

    I looked, but I’m afraid I can’t see you point, beyond the trivial one that, arguments are expressed in words and therefore they are semantic by definition .

  18. daniel young on said:

    Surly the question should be.”DO WE AS A UNION’ continue to ballot our employers for the purpose of financially supporting a political Party.

  19. From the BBC Website:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22243685

    Ed Miliband has said “massive increases” in spending on the NHS “won’t be available” if his party wins the next general election.

    After his attacks on Unite, Ed Miliband continues his drive to turn New Labour into a Tory Party mark II.
    He is, in effect telling the millions of voters who care about the NHS not to bother voting Labour.

  20. John Grimshaw on said:

    George Hallam: Please explain.

    Sorry for the delay George. Yes my comment was a bit obscure. It should be apparent by now that I am not a member or supporter of the LP. I want to see something better. However in common with Vanya, unlike yourself, to judge by your recent commentary, I accept that even now there is something different about Labour when compared with other similar bourgeois parties. By this I mean its historical link with organised labour. If this link is broken however then it seems to me that the attitude of socialists towards the LP must be different, and it may well be that opportunities arise that weren’t there before. Equally of course some will argue that something that was a positive good has been lost.

  21. daniel young on said:

    The membership of a Union,are the bosses of it.They appoint workers to work for them and there rights.

    Should a Union,with political understanding give financial support and ballot their employers on that ideal.A idea of financial support for the Party that was born through the Unions struggles.Has the Party or more so its Leadership lost the right to question the Unions right of what they decide.

    Daft eh Jimmy.But there you are.

  22. Uncle Albert on said:

    Just been reading about Labour MP Simon Danczuk – the one who had a go at Owen Jones.

    Turns out Danczuk is a non-executive director of Shine Bid Services, “a company supporting international businesses to win large contracts in competitive bidding environments.” They proudly claim, “We are behind hundreds of bid wins in the UK …. but you’ll never see our name on any submissions.”

    No doubt they are very busy with NHS/public sector/government contracts.

    For this Danczuk earns £1000 a day in addition to his MPs wages. And Labour supports the public sector pay freeze.

    It’s a fucking outrage.

    There’ll be even fewer union members wanting to opt-in.

    http://www.shinebidservices.com/

  23. Kevin T on said:

    Lewisham Left Lawyer,

    What Miliband wants is public funding of political parties but I suspect he’d sooner chew his own fingers off than go into the 2015 general election with that in his manifesto. However the Labour party is millions in debt and he’s making reforms that will likely cut his union funding in half – in Northern Ireland when they switched to opt-in, only about 1/3 of union members did so. Under opt-out around 90% of British members pay. Elections are expensive things to fight and the money has to come from somewhere.

    Personally I’m against public funding because it’s undemocratic (as is opt-out union member funding) and because it can be used as a political weapon to entrench established parties and marginalise everyone else.

  24. Presumably “opt-in” would not preclude individual trade unions deciding to donate to the campaigns of specific Labour candidates who could be prevailed upon to promote the general interests of that union’s members inside and outside Parliament? Political influence is a commodity which is bought and sold much like any other, and under the present arrangement levy-paying trade unionists do not seem to be getting very good value for money.