Below is the text of the speech made by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, on 27th August 2013.
Earlier this month, in the very quietest days of summer, if you listened very carefully you could hear a very distinctive sound – the gentle but unmistakable thump of the cat being let out of the bag.
It happened on August the eleventh in an article written by the former trade union staffer and Labour party worker Dan Hodges. Dan had been asking around to see what was foremost on Labour minds. What were the party’s priorities.
Was it the economy, given the case for Labour’s policy of more borrowing and more debt has been utterly demolished as recovery takes hold? Nope.
Was it welfare reform, given how hard Labour need to think again having opposed every single one of our changes to fix the tax and benefit system so that it rewards hard work? No sirree.
Education, maybe, given how tortured the party’s position is on free schools, how incoherent it is on exams and the curriculum, how confused on vocational education and how hopeless on helping poorer students? No, ‘fraid not.
Was it health then, or immigration, or crime, or childcare, or Europe or defence or the future of the Union? No, not exactly.
Labour’s principal preoccupation, according to a source within Team Miliband was – in two words – “the unions”.
And I think I know why.
Because Ed Miliband – in his weakness and lack of leadership – has set in train a process which will give the unions more power over his party, more power over its people, more power over its policies, more power to shape its propaganda, more power to shift its campaigning – more power to hurt hard-working people.
And Ed Miliband also knows that the only way to even begin to mitigate that growth in union muscle is to tax hard-working people more to pay for his speechwriters, his spin doctors, his conferences, his party political broadcasts, his party political literature, his regional organisers, his constituency organisers, his national policy fora, his regional policy roadshows, his plane fares and his train tickets, his entourage and all its expenses.
I’m speaking out today because I believe there is an honoured place for trade unions, a vital place for a healthy opposition and a growing appetite for political reform.
But at the moment unions are in the wrong place, the Labour party is in the wrong place and we’re being offered the wrong sort of reform.
I speak as someone who was a union member, who took industrial action on principle and who was sacked for going on strike.
The principles behind our strike were honourable – the aim was to secure appropriate union recognition in the workplace.
But the decision to go on strike was a mistake and better men and women than me lost their livelihoods and sacrificed the careers they loved. The decision to push for strike action was a decision of our union’s national leadership – which saw us as footsoldiers in its bigger battle. And – as footsoldiers often do – we paid the price.
Well led, unions can provide employees with effective representation, advice on workplace issues, legal protection and other services.
Poorly-led, union leaders use their members to fight ideological battles – often driven by the unrepresentative passions and ideologies of those who clamber onto the union’s executive.
As I know all too well in the field of education, teachers unions vary from the well-led and professional – like the NAHT and ATL – to others which almost automatically oppose every reform which will raise standards and help children.
At the moment the two biggest teachers’ unions are engaged in industrial action – working to rule, regional strikes and a proposed national one-day strike which makes life more difficult for hard-working parents, force them to pay more for childcare, disrupt children’s earning and make the job of every head more difficult.
They impose these costs on others because they object to changes which will lead to good teachers being paid more and all teachers being given the help they need to improve, with the worst teachers being moved on. They are putting the interests of some of their members above the needs of all children.
And just as some of the unions in education have swung hard to the left, so the big union beasts – Unison, the GMB and Unite have also embraced hard left proposals. Policies like unlimited welfare handouts to people who can work but refuse to work and billions and billions of more debt-funded spending.
But of course the overwhelming majority of union members don’t endorse this agenda – indeed barely half of them even vote Labour.
When unions use their muscle to advance an agenda which is so out of touch with their members’ interests, and with mainstream Britain, they are in the wrong place.
And Labour are in the wrong place when they allow that union agenda to drive their activities.
Tony Blair once argued that the Labour Party should not be the political arm of the trade union movement but the political movement of the British nation as a whole. That’s what One Nation politics means.
But, sadly, Labour are now sinking back into their pre-Blair position of living in the unions’ shadow.
The reason why the trade unions have become an issue again in British politics is because Ed Miliband owes his position as Labour leader to them.
Every previous Labour leader could be confident that their legitimacy in post was underpinned by the confidence of a majority of their colleagues and – subsequently – the votes of a majority of members. Ed Miliband does not have that legitimacy, confidence, or support. That is key to his weakness. He was put in place by organisations with an agenda because they believed he would be the most pliant personality available.
And the reason why the trades unions have now become a toxic issue for Ed Miliband is his failure to appreciate that – with him in place – radical left-wing union leaders now believe the Labour party can be theirs again – and they are taking it back – seat by seat, policy by policy, before his impotent gaze.
The attempt by left-wing union bosses to take control of the Labour party has been open – blatant – indeed long before the focus fell on Falkirk.
In December 2011, Labour’s biggest donor under Ed Miliband, the trade union Unite – led by Len McCluskey – published their Political Strategy.
Their aim was clear – “Our union needs a comprehensive strategy to advance our political work, reclaiming the Labour Party as an instrument of social progress”.
And by social progress the union was explicit – they wanted a shift to the Left – in other words, policies that are in their vested interests, and not in the interests of this country’s hardworking people. Policies on their shopping list included an end to spending cuts, an end to welfare reform and more legal freedoms to disrupt people’s lives with strikes.
Unite is also open that it has adopted the classic tactics of entryist organisations throughout the ages. It would get its people to enter moribund local party organisations – take them over – and then select candidates who were either members of their organisation or fellow travellers. Through the accumulation of muscle on the ground, power would be won at the top.
As Unite’s document said their political strategy had three main prongs. First, to grow Unite membership in local Labour parties. Second, to develop union friendly candidates for office. Third, to ensure Unite was fully represented on Labour’s main policy making bodies.
Unite recognised that it would take money – from their political fund of course – to secure these additional Labour party memberships, fix those Labour party candidate selections and shift the balance at the top in their favour.
In the document “Winning Labour for working people –Strategy and membership.” Unite were clear – “This requires a detailed and concrete strategy, with strong leadership, properly resourced”.
At the heart of the strategy – as events in Falkirk so dramatically revealed – was the use of those union resources to ensure that every safe – or winnable – Labour seat which came up was won by Unite or its people.
Unite pledged itself to “Working with other affiliated unions to secure the adoption of trade union (or union-friendly) candidates in winnable constituencies in particular”.
And Unite wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. It would – like left wing entryist organisations – create its own cadre – or vanguard – of loyal activists. So they promised that “Unite will launch a Future Candidates Programme (FCP). We will promote a new generation of Unite activists towards public office… We intend to produce some potential MP candidates for selection by 2013 at the latest”.
Just under a year ago, Unite’s Executive Council were updated on plans to take over certain constituencies.
In the report of the executive council September 2012 meeting, it was minuted that “regions have been asked develop intensive pilot campaigns to pursue the political strategy with the aim of increasing membership of the Labour Party.”
In case members were in any doubt what increasing Unite membership of the Labour party was for, a further update in December last year reminded them of the success in “the exemplary Falkirk” selection battle. Falkirk was “a seat where a candidate selection, to replace the disgraced Eric Joyce, is reasonably imminent, and where Unite, following regional and local consultation, is very likely to back Unite member and activist, Karie Murphy… we have recruited well over 100 Unite members to the party in a constituency with less than 200 members.”
We know that Labour subsequently investigated what was happening in Falkirk and suspended the process – but the internal report into just what was happening still remains unpublished – and Falkirk, being an “exemplary” demonstration of Unite’s political strategy, is very far from the only constituency where the union have been deploying their entryist tactics.
The Lib-Dem Labour marginal, currently represented by the formidable Gordon Birtwistle, was one target. “In the North West,” Unite reported, “initial work was around schools for activists, from specific constituencies with a membership ask. In Burnley this resulted in a number of new members and doubling of the delegates.”
In Southampton Itchen, where John Denham is standing down, and the Conservatives Royston Smith is bidding to win, Unite have also been active. The union recorded that they had set up a “Southampton local activist political school building on the successful and considerable Unite involvement in local elections a whole new level of election involvement including a number of new members”.
In Ilford North, where the impressive Lee Scott is defending a marginal seat, Unite have also been showing how enterprising they can be, as the Guardian reported: “flyers sent out by Unite invite its membership to attend a meeting in Ilford east London with McCluskey that offers to pay the member’s first year of party membership”.
In June of this year, Unite’s then Political Director Steve Hart summed up their progress in an internal political report.
He confirmed that Unite’s muscle was helping win selections and their political fund would be being deployed to support their people, “We will very much continue with targeted membership growth plans using phone banking and activists alongside constituency initiatives with local candidates, especially where a strong Unite candidate has won through selection” he wrote.
The degree of energy, he wrote which was being devoted to candidate selection was intense, “As some will have noticed, the work of the Political Department and the Union regionally in candidate selections is a little bit like a swan – all that can be seen is indication of support here or there, while below the water activity is furious!”
So furious indeed that Unite had ‘been supporting’ 40 other selections in addition to Falkirk. In Hart’s report he lists “candidates we have been supporting in different ways. I am pleased to report that the first on the list, Vicky Foxcroft, was successfully selected, winning over 50% in the first round of balloting in the ‘safe seat’ of Lewisham Deptford”.
President Lyndon B Johnson argued that the most important skill in politics was not rhetoric or logic – but arithmetic. Being able to count. On votes.
The greatest manipulator of power in the history of the US recognised that arguments were worthless without the votes in the legislature to get your programme through.
And Len McCluskey is clearly a keen student of LBJ’s – because his organisation is trying to secure the numbers on the ground – of Labour party members – to secure the numbers in the legislature which will deliver his agenda.
And it is instructive in all the controversy and debate surrounding what has happened in Falkirk that nothing – precisely nothing – has been done by the Labour leadership to prevent the largest systematic attempt at political entryism in our history since the existence of the Militant Tendency.
Ed Miliband has failed to act – and has no plans to act – to change how Labour MPs are selected.
Ed Miliband has failed to act – and has no plans to act – to look at any of the other 40 cases from Burnley to Ilford, Southampton to Lewisham, where Unite openly boast of their entryist success.
Ed Miliband has failed to act – and has no plans to act – to prevent Unite and its allies buying up Labour memberships to stuff the ballots in selection procedures.
Ed Miliband has failed to act – and has no plans to act – to prevent Unite and its allies using the political levies which members automatically opt into to fund this process of entryism.
Indeed the contrast with Neil Kinnock – who originally faced down the Militant Tendency over entryism is striking – and not at all flattering to Ed Miliband. While Kinnock moved bravely and remorselessly to eradicate Militant’s influence and Militant-sponsored MPs from Labour Miliband has done nothing to stop the takeover of his own party.
Perhaps we should not be surprised at Len McCluskey’s approach – because as well as clearly being a student of LBJ’s tactics, he is also intimately acquainted with Militant’s style of politics.
He was a member of the Labour Party in Liverpool during the 1980s when Militant took over the local Labour Party and Labour council. While Labour moderates such as Frank Field had to fight off repeated deselection attempts from the hard-left group, McCluskey was their ally. The two principal Militant activists in the city were Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn. Both were expelled by the Labour party in 1986. But Mr McCluskey has acknowledged both men were “close friends”, and he has subsequently stated that “on the chief issues (Militant Tendency) were right”.
It is certainly the case that the chief issues which preoccupy Len McCluskey and Unite today are well to the left of what anyone might term mainstream. And run directly contrary to the interests of the hard-working people who are crucial to our economic recovery.
Indeed, Unite are explicit that they want to disrupt economic growth, proudly boasting that they have, “set aside twenty-five million pounds to jump-start a dispute fund” in other words money to create strikes, which they say is ” another clear sign that this union means business … And we have deployed our nationwide team of organisers to support our members in struggle through a new leverage strategy, hitting bad employers all the way up and down their supply chain and their customer chain… the CBI is already warning fellow employers’ organisations across Europe about Unite’s leverage strategy”.
But it’s not enough simply to hit what Unite terms poor employers – all employers – indeed all citizens – need to feel the effects of union muscle. In a paper put forward to the TUC, Unite urged other unions to join them in staging a 24 hour general strike. In the document, Unite argues that ‘such action is desirable’ and that it would be an ‘explicitly political’ attack against the Government.
In his desire to promote militancy, McCluskey even threatened to disrupt the Olympics which Tony Blair brought to London. He wanted to use this occasion – when the eyes of the world were on this country – to promote public disorder. ‘The unions, and the general community, have got every right to be out protesting’ he said. ‘If the Olympics provide us with an opportunity, then that’s exactly one that we should be looking at… When you say what can we do, and the likes of the Olympics, I’m calling upon the general public to engage in civil disobedience’.
And the aim of all this activity is a decisive move of the political spectrum – and the Labour party – to the left.
Len McCluskey has told Ed Miliband that he must not try to move to the centre ground on the economy – indeed he must promise more taxing, spending and borrowing, as he warned his candidate, “He knows within this next 12 months he has got to start out with policy that gives hope to people and something different from the austerity programme that the government is pursuing.”
Specifically, McCluskey has opposed the changes to the welfare system the Coalition Government has made and wants to reverse the progress we’ve made towards making work pay. He wants to restore the spare room subsidy and end any cap on welfare. He has argued that all ‘the government’s so-called welfare reforms are designed to marginalise the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society’.
And Unite oppose all the Government’s education reforms. When we devoted additional cash to repairing the problems we had inherited they dismissed it as “small beer given the scale of the problems before us” and objected to the fact that “much of that money is earmarked to deliver the highly political free schools programme.”
In every area of public policy Unite – and their allies in Unison and the GMB – want to see a decisive move left, a move away from the interests of hardworking people. They have opposed making public sector pensions sustainable and more in line with those in the private sector. They have opposed measures to stop vexatious employment tribunal claims that affect small businesses. And they even want a return to the unsustainable tax rates of the 1970s.
And they believe they are getting what they want from Labour.
Across the field of policy – wherever Labour has a policy – you can see the imprint of union manufacture on the product.
In my own area of education Labour have opposed (even though Andrew Adonis has argued for) the move to create more academies with freedom over staff pay terms and conditions, the move to create more free schools with freedom over staff pay and conditions, the move to shift teacher training to the classroom, which is proven to be more effective but which makes union recruitment more difficult and the move to allow schools freedom to recruit expert professionals to teach who are not union members.
In every case the interests of unions trump the needs of our children.
Labour’s health spokesman – Andy Burnham – has also dismissed the education reforms parents support but unions oppose – declaring he “wasn’t cheerleading for academies” and his position on NHS reform has been driven by the need to appease the unions. Under Alan Milburn, John Reid and other genuine Blairite reformers pluralism was welcomed within the NHS. The more different providers could help reduce waiting lists, relieve pain and cure disease, the better. But now Labour want no change from the monolithic delivery of services in the way which suits unions such as Unison and Unite.
In every case the interests of unions trump the needs of those who are suffering.
And in the economic realm Labour have opposed changes to the Royal Mail which will improve the service to the public, have opposed flexibility in the employment market which helps keep people in work, and have opposed the reductions in public expenditure in the (union-dominated) public sector to allow growth in the (wealth-creating) private sector.
In every case the Labour spokesman concerned – from Andy Burnham to Chuka Umunna to Ed Balls – will have been thinking as they shaped their policies about the critical role unions will play in any future leadership election – a role Ed Miliband has failed to act – and has no plans to act – to change.
More than that, Labour’s operation in Parliament is funded, and directed, by union interests, as Unite boasted in their June 2013 Political Report, where they declared, “The union provided significant contributions to MPs and the Shadow teams” specifically to put forward union amendments such as those which were – in their words – designed to “block the worst aspects of both the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill and the Growth and Infrastructure Bill.”
That involved ordering Labour MPs to vote against giving employees the chance to own a share in the company they work for.
All of these positions make life harder for hard-working people. They reduce educational opportunity, increase the burden of the public sector on taxpayers, make it more difficult to get, and keep a job and drive up the cost of the goods and services we all need.
The trade union influence over Labour’s operation in Parliament can only grow as Unite and their allies continue their long march through the constituencies, racking up the numbers in the Parliamentary Labour Party to deliver on their policies.
Of course, the focus which the newspapers brought to the Falkirk scandal has forced some action from Ed Miliband. Some commentators have hailed his action to change the way unions operate within Labour as brave. Others have condemned it as foolhardy. I will leave value judgements to others. And look at the mechanics of what’s proposed.
Most trade unions have what they call political funds – levies on their members to support campaigning activity. It’s that money which is paying for Unite’s efforts to take over Labour parties constituency by constituency.
Union members are automatically enrolled into paying the political fund. In order to opt-out, members have to jump through various hoops.
In a poll conducted by my good friend Lord Ashcroft:
One third of members said they didn’t know whether they contributed to Unite’s political fund. Most Unite members (57%) preferred an opt-in system for the political fund; only 31% supported the current opt-out system.
The only political party the fund’s cash is ever used to support is Labour. Even though there is evidence that only a bare majority of trade unionists – and indeed Unite members – actually vote Labour. Indeed Unite’s own Political Strategy admits that, “According to opinion poll data today, we would expect that our members would be now indicating 45-50% support for Labour.”
Ed Miliband could have chosen to reduce union muscle – and indeed democratise British politics – by reforming the operation of the political fund at source. He could have insisted that every union member be asked to opt in to paying the political levy. He chose not to.
Perhaps because, as Lord Ashcroft’s polling shows only 30% of Unite members said they would contribute to the political fund under an opt-in system; 53% said they would not.
Ed Miliband could have argued that political funds be distributed to more than one party – in accordance with trade union members’ actual views. Or he could have argued that political funds could go to the politicians union members most admire. He chose no to, and again Lord Ashcroft’s polling of Unite members is revealing.
According to Lord Ashcroft’s work, 49% of Unite members said they would vote Labour in an election tomorrow, 23% Conservative, 7% Liberal Democrat and 12% UKIP. At the 2010 election 40% voted Labour, 28% Conservative and 20% Lib Dem. Asked which politician was best fitted to lead the country, 40% said David Cameron would make the best Prime Minister, just behind Ed Miliband (46%).
And of course Ed Miliband could have imposed a limit on how much trade unions can spend on political campaigning of any kind. He chose not to. Perhaps because he knows that the total amount in Union’s political funds is £13.9 million.
Instead he proposed one – very precise – change.
In the past trade unions have used their political funds to automatically enlist their members onto Labour’s rolls – to the tune of around £3 per member. This is known as the affiliation fee.
Ed Miliband has said he only wants those affiliation fees in the future if union members individually agree.
That does – absolutely – run the risk of Ed Miliband having less money from trade unions which he controls.
But it does not – at all – reduce the amount trade unions have to spend on their political activities – or indeed in support of individual Labour candidates, campaigns and parliamentary teams.
Each individual trade union will still raise just as much – perhaps even more – for its political fund. But now each trade union’s General Secretary and executive will have greater flexibility over how that cash is allocated. They can be – and are – in a position now to choose to give more of that money to the Labour candidates, MPs, activists and campaigns which they believe are appropriately ideologically aligned. They can decide which pipers to pay and can call the tunes they wish.
Unite has pledged specific – additional – financial support for Unite-aligned candidates in the run-up to the General Election. That would involve having phone banks manned for those candidates and, in the words of then Political Director Steve Hart: “committing up to £10,000 to a large number of these marginals based on draw-down of money for concrete proposals. Our overall expenditure on all the above will be significant but it is a very proper use of our Political Fund”.
Following Ed Miliband’s proposals to reduce his control over the unions’ political funds, Len McCluskey expressed his delight. ‘I want to spend more money on political campaigning, and Labour candidate selections’ he stated.
While the unions may not like payment by results or performance-related pay in the public services, they clearly approve of it as a political campaigning tool. And the message to any – existing or aspiring – Labour candidate is clear. If you align yourself with Unite there is extra money – and muscle – available to help you get selected – and then help you get elected. Perform in the right way – as decreed by the Unite exec – and your path to Parliament will be smoothed and future financial support will be guaranteed.
So by changing how the political funds operate – and reducing his slice of them – Ed Miliband is increasing the hold Len McCluskey and his allies have over candidate selection, increasing their control over the composition of the Labour party and increasing the incentive for all Labour candidates and MPs to follow the money – and fall in with Unite.
It’s not just candidate selection where the unions are liberated to shift politics in their direction.
As we have seen, Labour’s frontbench team in Parliament have relied on union money, and union ideas, to develop their policies. With the automatic funding that Ed Miliband used to be able to distribute diminishing, those frontbench teams will have to look increasingly outside for resources. And Len McCluskey and his team are only too happy to oblige – if those policies fit his agenda.
You don’t have to take my word for it. As Len McCluskey himself has explicitly said: “We will look to resource our political strategy in different ways…(through) better, enhanced policy input”.
So Ed Miliband’s proposed changes will encourage the drift of Labour policy further away from what’s in the interests of hardworking people – as Labour politicians compete for Unite’s favour and resources. We have already seen it happen over this summer – as Andy Burnham moves leftwards on health and Chuka Umunna and Chris Bryant have moved left on employment flexibility.
After Len McCluskey made it clear he wanted rid of the spare room subsidy, Labour briefed the New Statesman earlier this month that they would oblige. After Len McCluskey said he was ‘furious’ with Labour’s ‘crazy’ decision to back a public sector pay freeze, the Labour leader meekly told his party conference that he was ‘was not talking about the next parliament’.
And just last week – in direct response to a trade union demand for rent controls the Labour housing spokesman announced he would back intervention in the housing market.
On top of that, Ed Miliband’s failure to reform the unions’ political levy at source means trade unions can still spend massive sums in the run up to – and during – the election to support a Labour party that backs their vested interests and to campaign against Conservative policies which have brought back prosperity.
There is no limit on what the unions can spend on their campaigns – which can be deployed as we have seen to favour Labour candidates and undermine coalition candidates.
Indeed Unite have – again – been open about their ambitions. “Our provisional plan,” they outlined in their Political Strategy, “which will be developed for launch very early in 2014 is as follows. In each of 100 seats – the key seat 80 plus 20 defensive marginals Unite will build a structure based on 1 Constituency Captain, and field organisers. The Constituency 10 will have responsibility for organising 10 contacts with each Unite member in the seat in the 20 months up to the General Election – contacts in a variety of ways including face to face conduct. They will be provided with training, and detailed plans and statistics for the CLP – including workplace information, any voting data we have, Mosaic and other information to ensure informed campaigning. Efforts will be made to develop an esprit de corps amongst the 10, including clothing etc and a degree of competition as seen with our US colleagues. We will use Nationbuilder technology to facilitate the work.”
It would be amusing if it weren’t so chilling that Unite plan to encourage enhanced performance for their left-wing candidates at the election through competition. I suppose that is what you might call traditional values in a modern setting.
And of course Unite – and their allies – can spend millions on phone banks, canvassing, leafleting and adverts to push their message. A message which is unlikely to be “Same old Labour would make you worse off”.
At the last General Election, the five Labour-affiliated trade unions registered as third party participants spent over £700,000 – to fund campaigns against things like “Tory cuts”, including one memorable Unison poster of an axe with a blue blade, entitled “Look what’s in the Tories’ first budget”. Nothing in what Ed Miliband proposes will change that – indeed it will give the unions greater freedom, not least to concentrate their resources in support of candidates and causes opposed to the interests of hardworking people.
But while Unite and other unions will have more money available to push their agenda, Ed Miliband will have less of their money to pursue his.
So what will he do?
That brings me to my third question – the question of political reform.
I am strongly in favour of reform of our political institutions. The cost of politics is too high. Parliament needs to take back power from unaccountable bodies who exercise it without a mandate – not least the European Union. Our democracy needs to be more direct, public figures who exercise statutory responsibilities, not just politicians, need to be more openly accountable and taxpayers need even better information on how their money is spent.
But the political reform Ed Miliband is offering – the only one so far as I can see – takes us in the opposite direction. It will centralise power, raise the cost of politics, make the exercise of political authority more opaque, parties less accountable and, worst of all, citizens poorer.
Ed Miliband’s principal proposed political reform is taxing the public more to pay for politics
In recent years it has been a Labour aim to increase what they call state funding of political parties – but which is more properly described as the compulsory confiscation of taxpayers money to pay for politicians.
Plans were drawn up by the last Labour Government to increase state funding and it is those plans which the Miliband team are seeking to implement now.
Some Liberal Democrats have even made the case with my old friend Matthew Oakeshott saying we need taxpayer funding to get the “dirty money” out of politics.
Well, I personally think there are few dirtier monetary transactions than politicians getting together to agree that they will pick the pockets of people poorer than themselves to fund activities which should be supported voluntarily – not compulsorily.
If political parties want more money then they can either recruit more members or convince their own supporters to dig deeper. But for the advocates of more state funding on the left, there’s an intrinsic problem in philanthropists giving their money to support their beliefs. It’s alright if philanthropists give to arts, development or other causes. That’s public spirited. But if those same philanthropists decide to support their political ideals – it’s called the taint of big money.
There is a debate – of course – about whether there should be a limit on donations to political parties – governed by a desire to make political parties work hard to secure as wide a base of funding as possible. That is a sensible position but I shan’t get into the detail today of how any caps might or might not work.
But what does seem to me be crystal clear is that while it’s a good thing to have more people contributing to the political process – whether financially or otherwise – that should be on voluntary basis. No matter how much any individual might choose to spend from his or her own resources on supporting their ideals surely it cannot be immoral to spend your own money on supporting democracy? But what does raise real questions of morality – and principle – is forcing people to contribute out of their earned income to support political activity they may neither endorse nor welcome.
And yet that is the position which Labour are now embracing – call it what you will a spin tax, a “Militax”, a going to the poll tax – it’s all the same thing – more taxes to pay for more politicians spending more of your money.
I think hard-working people in this country already pay enough tax – and the purpose of tax is to pay for doctors, soldiers and teachers – not politicians. But if Ed Miliband gets his way you will soon be forced to pay for him.
It’s not too late for Ed Miliband and his team to get out of the problem they have created – and which Len McCluskey is so eagerly set to exploit.
They can take five steps right now.
First, they can investigate all 41 of the candidate selections Unite set out to manipulate – not just the one in Falkirk. They can examine where the growth in membership has come from, the money unions have been using to rig selections and the sharp practice potentially employed. Candidate selection in those seats could be suspended until a clean bill of health is issued.
It’s critical of course that such an investigation is independent and seen to be independent. It need not be judge-led. But it cannot be led – as Ed Miliband’s review of party funding is being led – by a former Unite apparatchik like Ray Collins. I would suggest someone like Alex Carlile QC or a cross-bench peer like Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank.
Second, Ed Miliband can also work with the Coalition to use legislation going through parliament now to reform the unions’ political levy system. We will help him make the political levy an opt-in exercise – at a stroke delivering the new politics he has argued for.
We would – of course – also support other changes he might want to advance to democratise how any political fund is spent.
Third, Ed Miliband should move to modernise his whole candidate selection – and leadership election – process to make it genuinely one member one vote, like the coalition parties. He could then submit himself for re-election to the membership which did not vote fro him in 2010. If he did, it would be a real show of confidence in his membership which would give his leadership greater authority.
Fourth, Labour can also police the funding of candidates to ensure there is no pressure from unions to support certain policy positions in order to secure extra campaign funding. It can restrict union funding of frontbench teams, declare in whose interests amendments are being laid or explicitly disavow introducing legislative changes at the demand of trade unions.
Ultimately, of course, Ed Miliband needs to go further to convince the electorate that he is ready to stand up to the people who bought him his leadership. He needs to make clear not just that the tactics of McCluskey and his allies are wrong but their policy agenda is precisely the sort of hard-left Militant inspired nonsense up with which he will not put.
And if anyone thinks I am asking too much I ask simply this – what would Blair do? Indeed, what would even Kinnock have done?
The sad truth is that – charming, intelligent, eloquent, thoughtful, generous and chivalrous as Ed Miliband may be – in this critical test of leadership he has been uncertain, irresolute, weak. To the question – who governs Labour – his answer would appear to be – increasingly – the unions.
And if Ed Miliband is too weak to stand up to the union bosses who pick his candidates, buy his policies and anointed him leader, then he simply will be too weak to stand up for hardworking people.
Our country cannot afford – as we had in the Seventies – the same old Labour party with a weak leader buffeted by union pressure to adopt policies only they want and asking hardworking people to pay the bills.
That is why when it comes to Labour and the unions, reform has to be fundamental, rooted in core democratic principles and in the public interest. There is no alternative.