On the face of it, by asking individual Union members to consent to giving their political levy to Labour, Ed Milliband is putting at risk the financial stability of his Party. Trade unions currently give the Labour Party £8.5millon per year. If only half of the 2.7millon members of the affiliated unions decide to opt into Party membership then, as things stand, Labour will lose £4millon. What the doom merchants fail to take into account is that it is unlikely things will stand as they are.
Changing how politics is funded
If Labour wins the next election they will probably try to reform how political parties are funded. The main block to reform has been that Labour are too scared to give up the big chunk of cash they receive from Union bosses, while the Conservatives feel the same about funds they receive from major donors. If Labour no longer relies on union leaderships for its money then it will be easier for them to agree new party funding rules with the Lib Dems.
If Labour does not win the next election they can still rely on indirect union support. Unions will still collect political levies, even if individuals choose not to be affiliated with Labour. This money will be used to fund political campaigns that the Union supports, for example – Keep Our NHS Public. These political campaigns will be sympathetic to Labour’s aims and it will not be hard for voters to understand this.
What is clever about the Collins proposals is that they recognise that people are more comfortable supporting, rather than becoming a fully-fledged member. The future of political participation is about involvement rather than membership.
How the proposed new system will work is that union levy payers will be asked to consent for £3 of their political levy to be paid directly to the Labour party. Once someone has opted to pay the affiliation fee, they will be contacted by the Party, who will confirm that they have become an “affiliated supporter”. If only half of the 2.7million people consent, then Labour will gain direct access to over 1 million new people. These people will then have an individual stake in the Party, their Party. The Labour Party will be able to send them literature, ask them to donate towards specific campaigns, put them in touch with local activists and ask them to knock on doors during elections. If only 20% of these new 1 million members help canvas, that’s an extra 200,000 bodies on the ground. If only 10% of these affiliated members give £20 a year to Labour helping causes, that’s an extra £2million into the coffers.
Whatever happens, Labour’s changes present a challenge to Conservative Central Headquarters.
*I discuss this issue, and others, with Emma Burnell and Mark Thompson on this week’s House of Comments podcast.