Michael Calderbank reports
When Ed Miliband first announced his proposals to introduce a new requirement for trade unionists to “opt-in” as an individual trade union supporter of the Party, he was immediately warned that this could lead rapidly towards financial meltdown and almost certain electoral defeat.
The final proposals announced by Lord Ray Collins avoid taking such an instant hit. Partly the five year schedule for the implementation of the reforms would carry them past the date of the next General Election. The retention of a collective levy means there will be no immediate fall off. Miliband has clearly calculated that creating the additional requirement for individuals to opt in as affiliated supporters in order to have a vote in the leader/deputy contests will have two results. Some individual levy payers will make a positive decision to align themselves more closely with the party (in which case £3 will go directly from the affiliated union’s political fund). The majority will most likely disenfranchise themselves out of inertia on party finances, since the money will still be paid collectively.
But why should union levy payers take a step of registering themselves as affiliated supporters of the Party, simply to exercise a power they currently enjoy as of right as a member of a union which collectively affiliates? If, far from enticing trade unionists to become more involved, the Collins reforms are interpreted as a further attack on trade unionism and its values – which seems entirely possible – who’s to say that it won’t trigger unions either to collectively disaffiliate, or of the whole process actively reminding people to opt out?
Quite apart from the byzantine membership structure the new process will involve, it seems likely to seriously erode the financial base of trade union contributions to the party, albeit not in the very short term. This will then make the Party more reliant than ever on donations from rich individuals or private companies, and could be used as an argument to move towards state funding of political parties.