UK Politics

Q&A: Miliband's union proposals

Labour leader Ed Miliband wants to change his party's relationship with the trade unions in the wake of a row with its biggest backer, Unite, over candidate selection.

What does Mr Miliband want?

Ed Miliband wants to change Labour's relationship with the trade unions so that union members can actively choose whether to join Labour and donate money to the party or not. He wants an end to affiliation fees - where members of supportive unions pay an automatic levy to Labour unless they opt out. The fees are worth about £8m a year to Labour. Insiders estimate making them non-automatic would cost the party about £5m.

Why would he want to do something that could cost his party millions?

It appears he wants to end the dominance of a handful of powerful trade union leaders over Labour Party funding. As long as union bosses are writing the cheques - especially since the row over the Falkirk selection battle - Labour is open to accusations from the Conservatives that the party is dancing to the unions' tune.

How would technical changes to union membership rules achieve that?

They might sound technical but this is potentially big stuff for the Labour Party. Mr Miliband hopes to transform hundreds of thousands of affiliate Labour members, recruited through their unions, into full Labour members, halting the long-term decline in the party's membership and activism. It could also put pressure on the Tories to change their own funding by capping donations from wealthy individuals.

What are the risks for Miliband?

There is no guarantee union members will opt to pay dues to Labour in sufficient numbers, leaving the party unable to mount effective election campaigns. There is also no guarantee that the unions will sign up to it. Mr Miliband believes the changes can be brought in without altering Labour's rule book, avoiding a public showdown with union bosses at the party's annual conference, but it could take years to push the changes through.

So how does the system currently work?

At the moment, when you join a union you automatically pay a percentage of your subs to its "political fund" - unless you tick a box out on the form to opt-out of it. Most unions divert some of that fund to the Labour Party. It works out at about £3 a year from each member. Union leaders can affiliate their entire membership to Labour in this way. Few union members know their rights, says BBC political editor Nick Robinson, so "the result is that many Tory, Lib Dem, Green or nationalist-supporting trade unionists unwittingly fund Labour and give their general secretary significant power in the party in the process".

So what will be different under Mr Miliband's proposals?

He wants an "opt-in" system, so enrolment to the Labour Party is not automatic on joining a union. People will have to actively choose to join by ticking a box on the form.

Are there any precedents for this?

Of the 15 unions affiliated to Labour, Unison is the only one to allow new members to choose whether or not they contribute to the party. Mr Miliband says the Unison system could be a model for all unions.

Does this mean he is ending Labour's links with the unions?

No. Mr Miliband has been at pains to stress that he believes in the "historic" link with the unions. But he wants it to change it into a "modern relationship with individual working people" rather than union bosses.

What do the unions think of Mr Miliband's plans?

Some were initially hostile to the idea, arguing that it will make it even harder for "working-class" candidates to enter Parliament, strengthening the grip of a privileged and unrepresentative political elite. But to the surprise of many, Unite's Len McCluskey, leader of Britain's biggest union, who has spoken out against an opt-in system in the past, welcomed Mr Miliband's proposal. He would need to look at the details but the idea of widening Labour membership was an idea he supported "100%" and he would "actively engage" in the change process.

Why is Labour so reliant on union funding?

The Labour Party was founded by trade unions in 1900 to give working-class people a voice in Parliament. The unions have always been its main source of funding, but successive Labour leaders have attempted to assert the party's independence and broaden its appeal by seeking alternatives. Tony Blair was particularly successful in soliciting donations from wealthy backers, although that was blamed for the "cash for honours" controversy. Big donations from business people have largely dried up since Ed Miliband became leader, increasing the party's dependence on the unions.

What do the unions get out of it?

Influence over policy and a say in who leads the party. The votes of union members were instrumental in securing Ed Miliband the party leadership in 2010. His leadership campaign was funded by Unite, which has donated more than £8m to the party since he took over. Not all unions are affiliated to the Labour Party. The RMT rail union and the Fire Brigades Union both ended their affiliation during the Blair years, although they continued to fund Labour election candidates.

How do the unions exercise their power?

Labour currently has three million "members" whose names and contact details the party has no access to. The details of members of affiliated trade unions are held by those unions alone. This gives union general secretaries the power to write large cheques and defend having significant representation on the party's governing National Executive Committee, the votes at party conference, the choice of party leader as well as local selections.

Is this row just about funding?

No. Mr Miliband also wants to change the way candidates are selected. He has proposed a limit on the funding of candidates by "outside" organisations. He also wants to introduce US-style open primaries to select election candidates, starting with the contest to be Labour's next London mayoral candidate.

What is an open primary?

Instead of election candidates being chosen by local party members behind closed doors, anyone in the constituency who is a registered supporter of the party has a vote. In the London contest that could, in theory open the contest to more than five million people, if all the city's voters chose to take part.

Why does Mr Miliband think that is better than the current selection system?

All the major parties have toyed with open primaries, which are the established way of selecting candidates in the US. Supporters say they stop MPs in safe seats taking their constituents for granted and bring an end to the backroom deals and "stitch-ups" that can take place under the current selection process, making it more open and democratic.

What about opponents of open primaries?

They say it will weaken local parties, giving members even less reason to join up, and lead to bland, centrist candidates.

What happens if the unions reject the plan?

It is effectively dead in the water. An earlier, more modest, package of Labour reforms drawn up by Peter Hain was dropped after opposition from the unions.

Why is Mr Miliband doing this now?

He has been spurred into action by a row over an alleged attempt by Unite to rig the contest to replace Eric Joyce as the party's election candidate in Falkirk.

What happened in Falkirk?

Unite has been accused of packing the Falkirk Labour Party with its own members in an attempt to get its favoured candidate selected. Unite has said that it recruited "well over 100 Unite members to the party in a constituency with less than 200 members" - but denies claims people were signed up without their knowledge. Labour Party HQ stepped in to take over the selection process.

What is Unite trying to do?

The union has said it wants to "shift the balance in the party away from middle-class academics and professionals towards people who've actually represented workers and fought the boss". One way of doing that is to get more union-backed candidates elected as MPs. A Unite strategy document suggests Falkirk was an "exemplary" case of how this should be done. The union is also supporting candidates in 41 other seats.

What's the problem with that?

There is nothing in Labour's rules preventing unions from backing Labour candidates. It is positively encouraged. Labour has said it wants to see more "working-class" candidates.

So why the big row?

Ed Miliband believes some Unite members have overstepped the mark in their efforts to get their candidate selected. He has accused those involved of "malpractice". The party has handed over a file to the police.

What have the Conservatives said?

David Cameron chose to make a big issue of it at Prime Minister's Questions last week, repeatedly goading Mr Miliband with claims that he was weak and in hock to Len McCluskey. Since then, Labour's general elections campaign chief Tom Watson has quit, two Falkirk party members have been suspended and rules allowing unions to sign up members to the Labour Party and pay the fees on their behalf have been suspended.

Why did Tom Watson quit?

Unite's candidate in Falkirk was Mr Watson's office manager and Len McCluskey is a close friend of his. He says he has stood down to prevent further embarrassment to Ed Miliband. But he has also suggested he was being undermined by colleagues who remain loyal to Tony Blair and who have never forgiven him for his role in toppling the former Labour leader.

What is happening now?

Labour HQ has taken over the candidate selection process in Falkirk and has been investigating allegations of vote-rigging. Mr McCluskey has said the investigation is a "stitch-up" and complained that his union is being smeared. He says people were not signed up without their knowledge and there should be an independent inquiry into the claims. Labour says it is up to the party to enforce its own membership rules and that there was "sufficient evidence of misbehaviour and abuse of membership" for it to hold the inquiry.

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