Labour could go bankrupt or become a state-funded liberal party, unless there’s a re-think on opt-in

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Just two years away from the General Election, the priorities of the Labour Party ought to be obvious. These surely need to be to strengthen our campaign against the Coalition government’s failing policies; sharpen our alternatives in anticipation of government; and preparing our internal organisation for the elections in 2014 and 2015.  Yet for some reason, we’re plunging into an internal conflict over a central element of our Constitution.

It appears that the Spring Conference is to become a rubber-stamp for ending the effective, collective involvement of the trade unions the party. Precisely why this is so urgent has not been explained. A relationship that has endured for over a century surely warrants a more considered examination

The suggestion is that an “opt-in” will be necessary to demonstrate Labour’s real support in the unions. In reality, the overwhelming majority of trade union members want the Coalition government out.  There will be many trade union members who want this without ever wishing to join Labour.  Such support is going to be walled off from Labour by the hurdle of opting-in.

It seems to be generally agreed that the new mechanism will reduce levy affiliation by around 80 to 90 % from current levels.   On top of this, general donations will be substantially reduced, as the impact of reducing the role of unions will increase internal resistance to donations.  Inevitably, there will be the argument that if we only affiliate 10 to 20% of levy payers why should we donate more than 10 to 20% of the remaining levy on top of this?

Taken together these reductions will cost several million pounds each year. The obvious question is then how do the enthusiasts for opting-in propose to fill this gap?

There will be some increase in business donations, if Labour appears to be the next government.   But we know how fickle business is in its support for Labour, unlike the loyal support received from the unions.

There is only one way this proposal will work – through a massive increase in state funding of political parties.  Labour in government could secure Lib-Dem support for this, and perhaps the Tories also, if there is a large enough cap on individual donations.

This is not a debate to be taken after the Collins review, and Spring Conference. This is a debate about whether opt-in can work at all.  It is vital for all members that the question of the funding gap is answered now.

It is also a distressing to see “open primaries” being touted as a strengthening of the Party’s connection to the electorate. With such a system the election of Labour’s candidate for London Mayor is likely to be more influenced by an unfriendly media and radio shock-jocks than union affiliates and individual party members.

How extraordinary is it to insist upon signed authorisation and financial commitment from trade union members before becoming involved in party processes, whilst offering to anyone, for free, the opportunity of participating in the mayoral selection?

Suggesting this is also appropriate for Party parliamentary selections really does begin to question the value of membership and affiliation.  Why pay for the privilege of membership when you get the rights of membership free?

The CWU will participate in the Collins review.  We will not dress up as a good thing the battering of the union link, nor the reduction in Party control via open primaries. By insisting upon examining the practical problems of opt-in and primaries, perhaps a re-think can be prompted. That is essential if, in future, the Party is to avoid bankruptcy or becoming a state-funded liberal party.

Billy Hayes is General Secretary of the CWU

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