Why Labour should stick with the “opt-out” for union members

17th April, 2012 9:01 am

As an ex-General Secretary of the Labour Party, Peter Watt is insightful and thoughtful on the challenge of reforming Party funding. He sets out his views here.

But I think he has got it wrong in saying Ed Miliband should have gone one step further and advocated a change to the way the trade union political levy works from opt-out (you have to say if you don’t want to pay a small amount each year to Labour) to opt-in.

Not only can union members opt-out, there are a further three methods by which they can express their opinion about their political levy payments to Labour:

  • They don’t have to join an affiliated union. There are non-Labour affiliated unions in virtually all lines of work. There are no longer any “closed shop” workplaces where membership of a particular union is compulsory.
  • They are balloted every ten years on whether to maintain a political fund across the union or not. These ballots are competitive.
  • They can bring disaffiliation motions to their union conferences to propose severing the link with Labour. In many unions a vigorous debate on this happens at every conference.

I think this is enough.

I don’t believe that there is public or union member demand for a move to opt-in.

It looks like something that is just a technical device to dilute the number of people paying the political levy to Labour and further reduce our funding. It shifts the default position to one that is unhelpful to Labour without enhancing anyone’s rights to choose, which is already enshrined in the opt-out system.

The whole point about trade unionism, and indeed social democracy, is that it isn’t just about individual decisions, it’s about working people coming together, hence the word “union”, to improve their lot in life. That implies taking collective, democratic decisions that you then abide by. It therefore seems to me appropriate that unions should take collective decisions on whether to affiliate to Labour or any other party or not at all, rather than a series of thousands of wholly individual opt-in decisions. After all, no one is proposing the reverse, that Labour supporting members of non-collectively affiliated unions like PCS or NUT or Equity should have the ability to tick an opt-in box to give some of their subscriptions to Labour even though their union has collectively decided not to be an affiliate.

I expect the Tories not to understand collectivism as they are philosophically “devil-take-the-hindmost” individualists. I don’t expect people from our Party, who all believe in values of solidarity and the collective democratic decision-making essential to this, to encourage them, so I hope Peter will reconsider his position on this.

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  • Forlornehope

    The problem is that Ed’s position is simply not credible to anyone outside the Labour movement.  If Ed sticks to the opt-out position it will simply mean that there will be no change and the Tories will continue to be able to receive massive contributions from their rich friends.  It’s actually a very sensible ploy to defend the two party duopoly.  Real change would disadantage both Labour and Conservative parties but would of great benefit to the LibDems, UKIP and the BNP!

  • Rangerwave

    I don’t know why you’re doing the Tories work for them? There is no “opt out”. You have to choose when you join an affiliated union whether or not to pay into the Political Fund or the General Fund. As with 1992 trade union legislation, they have to be openly separated. 

    Whatever you call it, it basically acts as an opt in. 

    • AlanGiles

      Watt is yet another one of the Labour Uncut shower. Enough said!


      • AlanGiles

        …. plus a streak of self-pity in 2009:


      • John P Reid

        Labour uncut, that’s- you know the poeple who actually win labour elections, Enough really said!!

        and labour uncut is read by alot more people than other blogs

        • AlanGiles

          Labour Uncut seems to be a right-wing Labour site designed for Blairites yto try to undermine the current leadership. Last week they created more fuss about the London PPB for Livingstone than even the right-wing press.

          And as far as I remember they didn’t win the 2010 election. Did they?

  • Daniel Speight

    Didn’t Peter have to resign over party funding? My memory is failing so maybe I have that wrong.

    • AlanGiles

      No you don’t Daniel. I take you back courtesy of the BBC to 2007:


      • Daniel Speight

         Thanks Alan. I forget these things. Looks like a bit of a dodgy character to be taking advice on funding from, doesn’t he?

  • JC

    If a trade union can do it, why can’t a company do similar by asking its employees if they would like to pay into a fund to support a political party. Once every 10 years should be enough and the directors can decide which party to give it to. It’s the same thing really. My choice would not just for “opt in” but also to say which party the money should go to. Some people support other parties such as Respect and the Greens.

    • Cartographile

      The political levy isn’t merely a way of getting people to donate to political parties in general. If you want to donate to Respect, donate to them. Lots of people have issues with individual decisions that unions make, individual policies, other uses of funds, but they don’t – or shouldn’t – demand that their contributions are used only in a specific way.

      Unite currently has a campaign on to save BAE jobs. You might be a member of Unite and yet think, reluctantly, that you don’t want to support jobs in the defence industry. Do you think that would mean you should just tick a box to opt-out of that? Or to fight to change the union’s policy if that’s what you want.

    • Dave Postles

      Have you considered how coercive  (tacit or overt) that might be?  Suppose an employer asked an employee, especially where there is no union representation, to make that donation, do you think that there is no latent pressure to conform?  Given the current intention to erode further employees’ rights, how might that affect people who fear for their employment?  IMHO, It’s a fairly pernicious prospect.

  • Dave Postles

    The mistake was made by the repeal of the Combination Acts.  Capitalism has never been the same since.  
    Condenser cotton spinning mules – operated by a foreman and his two piecers.

  • Given that your bankrupt you cant afford to change, you rely on those stolen funds.

    • Dave Postles

      Barker?  – more like a yapper – shitzui, perhaps?

    • Amber Star

      Ha! The Tories were bankrupt. Their auditors wouldn’t release their accounts without a going concern qualification until Lord Ashcroft came to their rescue with massive donations.

      Lord Ashcroft is a non-dom, Belize businessman who has been linked to allegations of corruption. He certainly didn’t keep to the spirit of his Tax for Honours agreement. He eventually had to admit that he’d not paid the UK taxes Wm Hague said Ashcroft would pay when he became a Lord.

      And one of the LibDems’ largest ever donations came from a businessman who was at the center of fraud allegations. 

      But you accuse Labour of relying on “stolen funds”! You’re having a wee troll with us, aren’t you? You wrote it to tee up a response like mine, right?

      • treborc1

        But of course labour had it’s fair share of problem with donations, peerages, Wee little FI Bernie, then Non Doms, loans, so I think all parties have problem with money. I suspect this is all leading up to something or other.

        The GMB have cut funding they are also looking at using the levy to fund other smaller parties, so money  may become a bigger problem.

  • Amber Star

    Labour have jumped in the polls since Ed’s Andrew Marr appearance. 4 polls have Labour well ahead. I’m not saying that correlation is causation but I think it helped. The ‘ordinary’ voter doesn’t give a toot about subtleties like opt-out/ opt-in. They see Ed as being willing to cap donations at £5k & the Tories clinging to the £50k for dear life. Ed has got the politics of this spot on so far.

    Ed should just keep saying: I’ve made my position clear – cap donations, cap spending, take no more funding from the public purse; what could be fairer than that? Ask the Tories why they are hair-splitting over an adminstrative issue, whilst clinging to ‘big donor politics’ & refusing to have an independent investigation into the ‘policies for donations’ scandal.

  • A well argued piece from Luke, good stuff.

    I’d assumed the Peter Watt proposal which, as Luke suggests, looks like “a technical device to dilute the number of people paying the political levy” would be the first step toward state funding – the eventual failure of Peter’s proposal will leave no other option.

    State funding would, in my view, be the worst possible solution – it would allow the PLP, already seriously  disengaged from the electorate, to jettison the membership along with the union connection then float off into a political fantasy land and become irrelevant.

  • Alan Griffiths

    Members of (some) Trade unions pay (or can opt out of) contributions to their Union’s political fund. Most (but not all) use some of this money to pay affiliation fees to the Labour party. 

    People who wish to keep both these arrangements would be wise not to write or talk about them as compressed into one. That would also help in making the argument that affiliation fess are not donations (which indeed they aren’t).

  • Stoprisk

    The ConDem regime here in the UK supports the Wahabbist dictatorships in Bahrain
    and Saudi Arabia. And, just like in Saudi the regime here wants to oppress women and
    ban trade unions. We desperately need Labour to Liberate us from Wahabbi oppression.
    Regime change needed in Bahrain, Saudi and the UK:OK !

  • Jim Martin

    I just read a book about Labour MP Will Crooks and it talks about how the Labour Party came into being, which of course came from of a proposal made at a Trade Union Congress so that Labour MPs would be able to represent the working classes. Although Unions and Labour are historically joined, I do think a Union member should be able to decide if he wants to contribute to Labour as i don’t think the Labour party today represents the working class and Unions as it did in its early days. The book btw if anyone is interested ‘Where there’s a Will, there’s a way. The remarkable life story of Will Crooks MP. http://www.jimsbooksite.com/


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