Party reforms hang in the balance as Collins fails to resolve the big question

by Atul Hatwal

The NEC has spoken. By a vote of 28 to 2 the Collins report was accepted and will now go to the special conference next month. Much of the reception to the report has been warm, and there is much to commend it, but lurking in the detail of the report is an important unanswered question.

There are to be two separate “opt-ins” for individual trade unionists: the first to give permission for political fund contributions to be used by the union in supporting Labour, and the second for the trade unionist to join Labour as an affiliate member.

The latter would give the right to participate in Labour’s leadership election, though not parliamentary selections. Only trade unionists who have agreed to their political fund contributions being used to support Labour can then opt-in to become an affiliate member of the party.

Underpinning both opt-ins is a single requirement: consent. This is where the problem lies.

What constitutes consent should be easily defined. When Ed Miliband started this process last July, he gave a very clear statement,

”Individual Trade Union members should choose to join Labour through the affiliation fee, not be automatically affiliated.”

To most people, this would mean members of trade unions signing a form to show their choice. In the context of the double opt-in, it would be a form with two boxes to tick – one to say yes to commit political fund contributions to Labour and the other to say yes to join Labour as an affiliate member.

But in the Collins report there is no such definition. Instead, it deliberately avoids clarity.

On the first opt-in, for political fund contributions, the only specifics to be found are on what consent means for new trade union members,

“In the case of new members, this will be in the form of a clear choice on the membership form.”

But, when it comes to the 2.3m members who are currently affiliated, suddenly things become vaguer.

“Existing members will receive a separate notification…Different trade unions have different structures and they should have the freedom to adopt an arrangement most appropriate to their own system and culture. The one common requirement is that they must provide all their levy paying members with an active choice about the payment of affiliation fees.”

The wording of the report makes it seems as if unions are far flung tribes from the outer reaches of the Amazon forest, each with an entirely different language and culture. As if the concept of simply signing a form – which let’s not forget is considered appropriate for new members – would bamboozle and offend baffled members’ sensibilities.

The strong rumour is that for the first opt-in the unions will just offer members the chance to opt-out of the current system.

This might seem similar to an opt-in, but it’s not. With an opt-out, inaction means the status quo persists. With an opt-in, inactivity is not sufficient, positive action is required.

It’s this type of positive choice to which Ed Miliband referred in his speech when he launched the reforms last year. If the outcome of the Collins process is that inaction by levy payers is sufficient to count as consent, then there is little reform in reality.

Millions of trade unionists will remain contributing funds to Labour because they haven’t bothered to respond.

“So what?” you might say. They will have had the chance to opt-out.  This is true, and some choice is better than none, but it is not what Ed Miliband promised and it doesn’t deliver his goal of a party funded by trade unionists that have made an active choice to do so.

On the second opt-in, to become an affiliate member of the party, the Collins report is once again infuriatingly vague the question of consent.

Although the briefing from Labour MPs and advisers charged with spinning the review has been that trade unionists will have to sign a form to join the party, this is nowhere to be seen in the report itself. Instead, it is distinctly non-committal:

“…levy paying trade unionists should have an opportunity to choose to formally support the party on a direct personal basis.  An Implementation Group should be established to oversee this process, which should come into operation before the end of 2014.”

This prompts the question, why is an implementation group required to oversee the distribution of a simple set of forms?

Answer: because the unions have not agreed to the simple distribution of a set of forms. If they had, it would have been in the report and no need to bother with an implementation group.

Here however, there is likely to be trouble.

It is inconceivable that the Information Commissioner will allow unions to transfer members’ details to the Labour party (for participation in leadership elections and CLP campaigns) without there actually being a form signed, showing a positive choice.

Whatever objections might be being raised in private, the law is the law and it’s hard to see how Labour’s new affiliate members will not sign something to demonstrate they want to join Labour.

This raises the prospect that when the reform process finally unwinds, there could be a double standard for Labour’s double opt-in.

Inaction will be sufficient for trade unionists’ funds to be committed to Labour, but active choice would be required to join the party.

Labour’s opponents will be quick to point out what seems like an exercise in political expediency: fixing the threshold for consent at the lower level when it relates to money and only raising it for the second opt-in where the law mandates it.

From the perspective of the union leaders, however, it will be a very welcome outcome.

The bosses’ personal position and power in the Labour movement will be maintained, because of the lower threshold for consent on funding. They will continue as the representatives of millions of levy payers.

And over five years, sufficient numbers of union members are expected to join the party to tip the electorate for the leadership election towards the unions with 50% or more of the franchise expected to be drawn from union ranks – a considerable improvement on the third offered by the current electoral college.

In this context it’s no surprise that the reforms have been so warmly received by the unions.

If Labour does adopt a double standard on consent for the opt-ins, what started as principled attempt to reform the party will be compromised.

The final outcome will be a marginal improvement on the status quo – levy payers will have had the chance to opt-out – but the simple proposition offered at the start of the reforms, of trade union levy payers making a positive choice to join the Labour party, will have been lost.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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One Response to “Party reforms hang in the balance as Collins fails to resolve the big question”

  1. Tafia says:

    “There are to be two separate “opt-ins” for individual trade unionists: the first to give permission for political fund contributions to be used by the union in supporting Labour, and the second for the trade unionist to join Labour as an affiliate member”.

    That will ultimately prove to be illegal. To meet european legislation the first part would have to be contribute for funds supporting the political party of that nominated in the second part and the second part would have to be to join a political party of the members choice as an affiliate member.

    And the unions would have to carry out those wishes or be found guilty of discrimination. So I wonder how the unions would react to people selecting UKIP or the BNP?

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