Labour prepares to re-write Collins party reform package

by Atul Hatwal

A fortnight on from Labour’s special conference and major change is on the agenda for Ed Miliband’s flagship party reforms.

The Labour leadership was able to secure strong backing for the Collins review from the unions largely because it delegated resolution of much of the contentious detail to a separate “implementation group”, to be set up following the special conference.

This group, comprising union and party representatives, has now been formed and outstanding questions need answers.

Immediately, problems are emerging in two areas: how the unions’ new political funds will be administered, and the role of union members in elections held before the end of the five year Collins’ process.

First, on the arrangements for the new structure of the political funds, the unions are split.

Broadly, the majority of the unions envisage a version of the Unison model.

This is where there are, in effect, two political funds: a general political fund, which is not used to fund Labour, and an affiliated or “Labour link” fund, which is used to support the party.

Where a trade unionist decides that they do not want their political fund contributions to support Labour, they all go into the general fund.

Where they want to financially support Labour, their contributions are split between the two funds.

The defining rule about the general fund is that its resources cannot be donated by the union to the Labour party.

Sounds simple.

However, Uncut understands that Unite aren’t happy with this approach.

Labour sources have suggested to Uncut that Len McCluskey’s team do not want a hermetically sealed barrier between the two funds, as in the Unison model.

Instead, they want the flexibility for the union to be able to make discretionary donations to the Labour party, using money from the general fund.

If this is the case, then there are three major implications for Ed Miliband’s reforms.

First, the founding principle of the reforms, that union members’ should have a choice about whether their political fund contributions are used to support Labour, will be abrogated.

Millions of pounds of funds from union members, who choose not to opt-in to the Labour affiliated fund, could still be donated to Labour.

Second, because these donations are purely discretionary and not triggered by a level of affiliation, the price, in terms of policy, that the Labour leadership will have to pay, will inevitably be higher.

Donations will be tied to specific policies that the party will likely be reluctant to endorse. For example, one of the most contentious areas of dispute between Labour and the unions is over a public sector pay freeze.

Two years ago, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls both committed Labour to maintaining the coalition’s pay freeze policy but it is difficult to see how unions could justify sizeable discretionary donations, if this was not overturned. Today’s responses from the unions to the government’s plans to extend the pay freeze are illustrative of the depth of feeling stirred within the union movement.

Third, if the majority of unions commit to a Unison style model and a minority were to retain the ability to make major discretionary donations, then the latter group’s financial leverage would be significantly increased.

As funding from other unions decreased, in line with the expected fall in numbers of members opting in to financially support Labour, then the power of those unions that were able to dip into the larger general political fund for discretionary donations, would rise.

Given the wide latitude given by the wording of the Collins report, for the unions to adopt different approaches, there is little to stop Unite – or any other union – going down this route, if this is what they decide to do.

As if this wasn’t all bad enough, Uncut also understands that the union representatives on the implementation group are about to make a stand on redrawing the terms under which the Mayoral primary, and any potential leadership in 2015, are conducted.

The expectation, following the special conference, had been that only trade unionists that had opted in to becoming affiliate members of the Labour party would be able to participate in the London Mayoral primary and any leadership election in 2015.

The unions’ unease with this position is well known. The prospect of hundreds of thousands of trade unionists being disenfranchised in pivotal internal party elections would be a nightmare scenario for union leaders already under pressure from members who are increasingly restive about relations with the Labour party.

As the work of the implementation group begins, a change to the rules governing these elections – most likely involving a switch back to the previous arrangements until the five year Collins process is complete – is going to one of the first issues to be addressed.

A source in Brewers Green summarised the changes to Collins that are expected within the party machine,

“There’s no way the unions are going to let their members be cut out of the voting for the London Mayor, or leadership, if we have a vacancy next year. It’s a given that we’ll run with the old rules or something very similar.

On the political fund, most unions will play ball and do a Unison, but for those that don’t, what are we going to do? Is Labour going to expel Unite? Of course not.”

If Collins is implemented in the manner that many within the party now anticipate, it will fundamentally recast the reforms.

At the start of this process Ed Miliband was clear that trade unionists who didn’t want to donate to Labour wouldn’t have their political fund contributions used to support the party. If the unions are able to make party political donations, from their general political fund, a hole will have been blown in the founding premise of the reforms.

From the perspective of an individual trade unionist it hardly matters whether they are centrally affiliated to Labour by their leadership (as under the old system), with their money being used to support the party, or if the union leadership simply make discretionary donations to Labour from members’ contributions to the new general political fund.

Either way, it’s the union leadership that decides whether a trade unionist’s funds are used to support Labour, regardless of what that trade unionist might personally want.

And if the old electoral college or similar is re-instituted, instead of OMOV, for a potential leadership election in 2015, then one of the major changes trumpeted by the Blairite wing of the party will also have been lost.

Implementation is everything and in the case of Collins, the reality of its actual delivery is likely to be very different to the lofty vision discussed at the special conference just two short weeks ago.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut 

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4 Responses to “Labour prepares to re-write Collins party reform package”

  1. paul barker says:

    What about Union members who dont want to contribute to a Political Fund at all ? In practise Unions always run campaigns that either align with Labour Policy or stand to Labours Left. Tory & Libdem Unionists will still be forced to give money to campaigns against the Parties they support. From this outsiders viewpoint the whole Reform process looks like a con.

  2. Robert says:

    Con nope compromise is closer.

  3. Tafia says:

    Should be no political levy unless the member physically opts-in (as per TSSA). Further, the opt-in should be to a party of that members choice.

  4. Ian says:

    Isn’t a Unions’ political levy meant to support that Union’s policies – as determined by its executive/conference. Consequently its leadership should use its general political fund to do just that, potentially including donations to political parties, including Labour (or UKIP if so deemed!). Members who choose to affiliate to the Labour Party have that part of their levy supporting their affiliated membership of the LP, and so going directly to the LP.
    The distinction is not between those who wish to support the LP financially or not but between those who wish to affilliate as members to it or not. Union mebers who do not wish to provide any financial support to the LP opt out of the political levy.

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