The debate over the nature of the Party’s relationship with the Trade
Unions has been on simmer for a while. The political establishment is
awaiting the outcome of the Committee on Standards in Public Life
enquiry into the funding of political parties. I gave evidence during
the November hearings. The report is expected in the Spring of 2011 with
the presumption that this will be followed soon after by the
Government’s response. We know that they are committed to legislating on
donation caps. Which is why it is all very interesting that the
Independent has an article today that indicates that Ed Miliband is in
favour of a donation cap of as low as £500 per year. Further, that he is
in favour of this partly because this would have real implications for
the future of the Party and its affiliated members.

Now I am a little sceptical about the article. It is based on the
Party’s written evidence supplied by the General Secretary Ray Collins
in which he reasonably says:

“While some argue for a cap of £50,000, a much lower cap of around
£500 would be more equitable, democratic and less susceptible to

But I would suspect that the £500 figure is either a mistake or a
negotiating position for use when the legislative horse-trading starts.
Certainly the notion that the Party could be funded by small donations
alone is a fantasy. There would presumably have to be some extension of
state support by, say, matched funding or some such. But I want to
believe that the fundamental basis of the article is true. That Ed
Miliband really has decided to tackle the disgrace that is the current
set of arrangements with our affiliates.

To be clear, whilst we talk up the opportunities for engagement with
millions of working people across the country afforded by the link, on
the whole it is a sham. The relationship is for the most part a
relationship with a small and elite group of Trade Union officials.
Whilst they don’t buy policies they certainly buy influence. And if you
think that that is harsh just think about how often Trade Union
colleagues complain that they don’t get as much for their affiliation
fees as they would want.

The reality is in fact worse. The current relationship with the Trade
Unions allows us to obscure the fact that we actively exclude the
public in a systematic way from being involved in determining the
policies or choosing the candidates that want to become their elected
public servants.

Over the coming months, as party funding is being discussed, the
nature of the relationship with the Trade Unions will be under scrutiny.
For heaven’s sake let’s not delude ourselves about the reality of the
current relationship. No one outside of the Party believes us, and in
trying to defend it we will harm ourselves.

Instead, let’s think about what the relationship with the Trade
Unions could be. It could be part of the answer as to how this Party
reaches out into communities across the country. It could actually be
about involving millions of working people in grass-roots politics. It
could be part of the way that we move from being elite and out of touch
minority to becoming a community based force for social good. It
certainly can’t be any of these things whilst all we are worrying about
are the implications of change on our moribund internal structures.

So I hope that the Independent article is broadly right. That Ed
Miliband intends to open up the Party to the public and strengthen the
relationship with the Trade Unions and Trade Unionists by weakening our
dependence upon them financially. I hope that the Party gets ahead of
the curve, embraces donation caps that include Trade Unions and changes
the Leadership Electoral College to include the public. It is not a
moment too soon.