The Conservatives and Labour have long had the drop on each other, like two gunslingers in a western, when it comes to party funding. When in Government, Labour has not capped political donations. When in Government, the Conservatives have left alone the current system of not contracting out of paying the political levy.
No longer. Today, the Party opens fire: a new Trade Union Bill is to be unveiled, which will compel all unions to ask each of their members whether he or she wishes to pay the political levy, and then repeat the question every five years.
It will also require more notice of strikes from unions; empower employers to take on agency staff during disputes; make secondary picketing a criminal offence; give new protections to non-striking union members; bring in greater powers to fine unions for breaches of reporting rules; order a clear description of disputes and planned actions on ballot papers (the lack of both was a bugbear of Francis Maude when he served at the Cabinet Office)…and curb the time that public sector workers can spend on trade union duties, a practice that Eric Pickles did his best to chip away at during his term at CLG.
The strike ballot threshold proposal, which will now be consulted on, was in our own ConservativeHome Manifesto, along with the requirement to have clearer terms on ballot papers. We also recommended removing unjustified trade union privileges at the start of our post-election series on what the Government should do next.
So we welcome the Bill – recognising, while doing so, that Ministers must strike a balance. This One Nation Government is proposing a tougher set of trade union laws than Norman Tebbit ever drew up. Sajid Javid and Nick Boles, who are leading on the bill, must thus balance being seen to be anti-trade union abuses, which they are, with not being anti-union members, which they certainly are not: Labour and the unions will strive to blur the difference. The importance of making this distinction has been stressed by Robert Halfon, now the Party’s Deputy Chairman, not least on this site. This is why our manifesto also said that government should help unions to provide more services to their members.
Readers who have absorbed the cowboy analogy may point out that if one fires at another, the latter tends to fire back. And though Labour is weak today, thrashing about in the midst of a charisma-deprived leadership election, this won’t be so indefinitely.
The Government’s measures thus make it likely that a future Labour Government will slap a ban on big donations to political parties. Lord Feldman has been busy diversifying the Party’s funding: it is less dependent on a small number of big donors than it was. Nonetheless, it would be thrown into financial disarray without gifts from a handful of givers worth the best part of a million pounds each, or more.
For the sake of prudence as well as political health, it should be working towards a voluntary cap on donations of, say, £50,000 as swiftly as possible – before Labour gets the chance to put an even more stringent limit in place. Let’s “fix the roof while the sun is shining”, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer would say.