By Harry Phibbs
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Once again the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has ventured far wider than his portfolio to challenge the direction of the Labour Party. The latest offering from Mr Gove was delivered this morning at CCHQ and concerned the trade unions in general and their relationship with the Labour Party in particular.
This is a strong Conservative theme – a recent YouGov poll for Prospect magazine found that 41 per cent agreed that Ed Miliband "is in the pocket of the trade union leaders." 34 per cent disagreed. However, Mr Gove sensibly differentiated between trade union leaders and trade unionists.
This was a distinction that Margaret Thatcher was invariably careful to remember. She would give speeches at conferences of the Conservative Trade Unionists. Her union reforms – on the closed shop, ballots, picketing – were about reducing the power of union leaders to bully union members. Norman Tebbit would frequently remind people how he had been a BALPA shop steward when he was a pilot.
Mr Gove also offered a "back story" to balance his criticisms:
I speak as someone who was a union member, who took industrial action on principle and who was sacked for going on strike.
The principles behind our strike were honourable – the aim was to secure appropriate union recognition in the workplace. But the decision to go on strike was a mistake and better men and women than me lost their livelihoods and sacrificed the careers they loved. The decision to push for strike action was a decision of our union's national leadership – which saw us as footsoldiers in its bigger battle. And – as footsoldiers often do – we paid the price.
Then Mr Gove got on to the substance of the matter. A comparison between Unite's tactics to manipulate the selection of Labour candidates with what Militant was doing in the 1980s.
Ed Miliband has failed to act – and has no plans to act – to prevent Unite and its allies using the political levies which members automatically opt into to fund this process of entryism.
Indeed the contrast with Neil Kinnock – who originally faced down the Militant Tendency over entryism is striking – and not at all flattering to Ed Miliband. While Kinnock moved bravely and remorselessly to eradicate Militant's influence and Militant-sponsored MPs from Labour Miliband has done nothing to stop the takeover of his own party.
Perhaps we should not be surprised at Len McCluskey's approach – because as well as clearly being a student of LBJ's tactics, he is also intimately acquainted with Militant's style of politics.
He was a member of the Labour Party in Liverpool during the 1980s when Militant took over the local Labour Party and Labour council. While Labour moderates such as Frank Field had to fight off repeated deselection attempts from the hard-left group, McCluskey was their ally. The two principal Militant activists in the city were Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn. Both were expelled by the Labour party in 1986. But Mr McCluskey has acknowledged both men were "close friends", and he has subsequently stated that "on the chief issues (Militant Tendency) were right".
The main difference seems to be that Militant was secretive about what it was doing while Unite is quite brazen.
Regarding Mr Miliband's current proposals to reform the political levy, Mr Gove finds them unconvincing:
In a poll conducted by my good friend Lord Ashcroft:
One third of members said they didn't know whether they contributed to Unite's political fund. Most Unite members (57%) preferred an opt-in system for the political fund; only 31% supported the current opt-out system.
The only political party the fund's cash is ever used to support is Labour. Even though there is evidence that only a bare majority of trade unionists – and indeed Unite members – actually vote Labour. Indeed Unite's own Political Strategy admits that, "According to opinion poll data today, we would expect that our members would be now indicating 45-50% support for Labour."
Ed Miliband could have chosen to reduce union muscle – and indeed democratise British politics – by reforming the operation of the political fund at source. He could have insisted that every union member be asked to opt in to paying the political levy. He chose not to.
Perhaps because, as Lord Ashcroft's polling shows only 30% of Unite members said they would contribute to the political fund under an opt-in system; 53% said they would not.
Ed Miliband could have argued that political funds be distributed to more than one party – in accordance with trade union members' actual views. Or he could have argued that political funds could go to the politicians union members most admire. He chose no to, and again Lord Ashcroft's polling of Unite members is revealing.
According to Lord Ashcroft's work, 49% of Unite members said they would vote Labour in an election tomorrow, 23% Conservative, 7% Liberal Democrat and 12% UKIP. At the 2010 election 40% voted Labour, 28% Conservative and 20% Lib Dem. Asked which politician was best fitted to lead the country, 40% said David Cameron would make the best Prime Minister, just behind Ed Miliband (46%).
And of course Ed Miliband could have imposed a limit on how much trade unions can spend on political campaigning of any kind. He chose not to. Perhaps because he knows that the total amount in Union's political funds is £13.9 million.
The only proposed change is that union members would be able to specifically agree to £3 of their union sub going to the Labour Party for them to be an affiliated member. If they disagree, the money would still be in the political fund:
That does – absolutely – run the risk of Ed Miliband having less money from trade unions which he controls.
But it does not – at all – reduce the amount trade unions have to spend on their political activities – or indeed in support of individual Labour candidates, campaigns and parliamentary teams.
Each individual trade union will still raise just as much – perhaps even more – for its political fund. But now each trade union's General Secretary and executive will have greater flexibility over how that cash is allocated. They can be – and are – in a position now to choose to give more of that money to the Labour candidates, MPs, activists and campaigns which they believe are appropriately ideologically
aligned. They can decide which pipers to pay and can call the tunes they wish.
Unite has pledged specific – additional – financial support for Unite-aligned candidates in the run-up to the General Election. That would involve having phone banks manned for those candidates and, in the words of then Political Director Steve Hart: "committing up to £10,000 to a large number of these marginals based on draw-down of money for concrete proposals. Our overall expenditure on all the above will be significant but it is a very proper use of our Political Fund".
Following Ed Miliband's proposals to reduce his control over the unions' political funds, Len McCluskey expressed his delight. 'I want to spend more money on political campaigning, and Labour candidate selections' he stated.
While the unions may not like payment by results or performance-related pay in the public services, they clearly approve of it as a political campaigning tool. And the message to any – existing or aspiring – Labour candidate is clear. If you align yourself with Unite there is extra money – and muscle – available to help you get selected – and then help you get elected. Perform in the right way – as decreed by the Unite exec – and your path to Parliament will be smoothed and future financial support will be guaranteed.
Instead Mr Gove challenged Mr Miliband to embrace proper reform:
Ed Miliband can also work with the Coalition to use legislation going through parliament now to reform the unions' political levy system. We will help him make the political levy an opt-in exercise – at a stroke delivering the new politics he has argued for.
We would – of course – also support other changes he might want to advance to democratise how any political fund is spent.
This is an important reform. The Government should require genuine "opting-in" to the political levy – whether or not Labour MPs agree to back the change. That must mean the choice of allowing trade unionists to keep the £3 a year – rather than the choice of whether it is spent campaigning for Labour candidates approved by Mr Miliband or only the ones approved by Mr McCluskey.