Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Miliband, Labour, and the Unions.

The Tory "perception management" machine has scored another triumph by diverting the odium of questionable party funding and consequent  influence from themselves to Labour.

I cannot see anything particularly terrible in the Unite union trying to encourage its members to sign up individually to the Labour Party and influence the selection of a candidate.  Yes,  the payment of the membership fees by a single cheque sounds a bit "iffy" but, as Chris Hitchins's father apparently  used to say : "Worse things happen in big ships."

When we ask ourselves what  actual connection David Miliband had with South Shields, Ed has with Doncaster North or, to take a more obscure example, Hilary Benn has with Leeds Central (a constituency I contested for the Liberals n the 1980s, when I  worked there and lived within seven or so miles.) Any attempt to have working people involved in the selection of a candidate seems reasonable, even if the methods to achieve it could be tidied up a little.

But these vaguely dubious shenanigans in the Labour Party pale into insignificance compared with the the methods by which the Conservative Party maintains its dominance, and in so doing places itself in hock to  big business and finance.  Whilst trade union funding of the Labour Party is relatively transparent, the funding of the Conservatives by some 15 family groups, and the financial services sector which generates about half their income, remains obscure. But at the last election the Tories spent £16.6millon, double Labour's £8million and almost four times the Liberal Democrat's relatively puny £4.8million.  And that's just the official expenditure during the campaign.  Add the millions the likes of Lord Ashcroft pour into marginal seats on behalf of favoured candidates and the unevenness of the playing field  becomes even more apparent.

Ed Miliband is in my view very foolish to have allowed himself to be bounced into tidying up his own back yard and risking a massive loss of income while the Tory advantage remains intact.  Some commentators have taken the view that Miliband's move will embarrass Cameron into taking similar action.  Some hope: our ruling classes don't do "embarrassment.".

Liberals and Liberal Democrats have long advocated that trade union members should be able to indicate to which party their portion of the levy  should be given.  This seems a reasonable compromise but has always been resisted by both the Labour Party  and the Union leaders.

There is clearly an urgent need for further talks to lance the boil of party funding, During the later years of the Labour government,  following the review of party funding by Sir Hayden Phillips, agreement was almost reached, and then it was the Tories who walked away.  Nick Clegg's more recent  attempts have now been abandoned.

 It is a damning indictment of our democracy that we are incapable of introducing a greater measure of fairness into our political system.  In my view the best suggestion so far is that put forward by Professor Stein Ringen*.  In the meantime we should never let it be forgotten that the major abuser of and benefactor from the present inadequately regulated system is the Conservative Party.

*  Briefly, individual, corporate and union contributions are strictly limited.  Parliament decides on the additional total amount needed annually to service our democracy.  Say it is £60 million with 30 million electors.  Each elector is issued annual with a voucher for £2.  Party stalwarts will promptly send it to their favoured party and the Treasury will hand over the cash.  The "plague on all your houses" brigade will promptly burn it.  Dedicated party workers will canvas all households in the hope of persuading them to hand their vouchers over to them for the benefit for their party. 

This has the advantage of providing fairly distributed state funding but at the same time forcing the parties to keep in touch with the electorate,  whereas the alternative of direct state funding enables the party headquarters  to ignore both their members and the electorate and continue to thrive in their own little bubble.  This system was described by Professor Ringen in "Liberal Democrat News" some years ago, but I do not have the reference.

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