The Collins inquiry (part 1): Weighing up the options

Ed Miliband’s plans to dilute the role of trade unions in the Labour Party are already encountering strong resistance from activists.

Senior trade unionists have spoken out against the proposals and a campaign has recently been launched to Defend the Link, with an inaugural public meeting at Conway Hall on September 3.

The task of redefining and diluting the trade union role has been given to Lord Collins of Highbury, who will be presenting a consultation paper to the Labour conference in September with some initial thoughts. The final blow will be delivered in the conference in the spring.

There are already legitimate complaints that the consultation period is too short and that there is too great a rush for something so important and so historic.

But like it or not the clock is ticking down and trade unions and constituency Labour parties will need to get their tackle in order for the fight ahead.

There are two questions that we will need to confront, the first being the nature of the future relationship unions are to have with the Labour Party and the second being the nature of the influence unions have in any new settlement.

So far as the future of the relationship is concerned, there are many options that could be put before Lord Collins. This is because there have been so many inquiries in the recent past set up to break or redefine the link between the unions and Labour.

The bad news for Lord Collins is that they all failed in the face of united union resistance.

The first option is the status quo. Trade unions as collective entities are members of the Labour Party, with each union deciding the nature and intensity of its relationship.

Most affiliate on the basis of the number of members who pay the political levy, but many under-affiliate.

Those who under-affiliate usually do so for two reasons – first to respect the fact that not all levy-paying members support the Labour Party, though they are happy to contribute to their union’s other political work. And second, in order to retain some funds for independent political campaigning.

This is an option that may look increasing alluring to Miliband.

But given that he may have talked himself out of it, the second option is the “Hayden Phillips option”  after the civil servant who was tasked by Tony Blair after the cash-for-honours scandal in 2006 to clean up party funding.

Under this option unions would affiliate on the basis of everyone who pays the levy, and would make clear on their membership application forms that the political levy is used to support Labour.

There would then be informed consent. Those who objected would be free to opt out of paying the political levy altogether.

This is not attractive to affiliated trade unions, which brings us to the third option – ”Hayden Phillips-plus” whereby a union would affiliate on the basis of everyone who pays the levy, except for those who tick a box to indicate that they do not want their levy to be used for parliamentary representation.

In this case the political levy of these members would go into a general political fund to be used for the other campaigning political purposes of the union.

Again there would be informed consent, in the sense that the right-wing media could not say that members’ money was being used without their knowledge or against their wishes.

In my view these are the only acceptable options, with my preference being for the first in the interests of trade union freedom, and the third being a possible option only if it was felt necessary to compromise with the Labour leadership. There are, however, two other options on the table, both of which should be binned.

The first of these other options is the “Kelly option” named after the chairman of the committee on standards in public life, which looked at party funding in 2011.

Here, a union would affiliate to the Labour Party only those members who ticked a box to say that they want their political levy to be used for Labour Party affiliation.

Under the Kelly option, levy-paying members would have to “contract in” to Labour Party affiliation if they were in favour, unlike the “Hayden Phillips-plus” option whereby levy paying members would have to “contract out” if they were against affiliation. It is the beginning of individualisation.

Under the Kelly option trade unions would be reduced to no more than collecting agencies for Labour, with the money to be handed over automatically.

If a member did not contract in to Labour Party affiliation, their political levy would go to the general political fund to be used for other political purposes.

The unions rightly rejected the Kelly option, which offends common sense.

So does the final option, the so-called “Miliband option” which takes the process of individualisation to its logical conclusion by suggesting that unions can affiliate collectively only on the basis of those members who are themselves associate party members.

The Miliband option represents a fundamental change in the structure of the party and its relationship to the trade unions.

Collective affiliation becomes of secondary importance – it is contingent on levels of Labour Party membership within the union, rather than total union members paying the levy.

As such it will inevitably weaken the trade union voice within the party, as millions of trade union levy-paying members decline the not so alluring opportunity to become members of the Labour Party, in whatever capacity.

The beauty of the status quo is that it enables workers to engage with Labour vicariously rather than directly.

For many that is enough. And it ought to be respected. Apart from anything else, insisting that trade union levy payers must also become members of the party will lead inexorably to small and declining levels of union affiliation and the unsustainability of existing party structures.

Unions are rightly concerned that the existing structures have not delivered sufficiently radical policies.

But in my view the answer to that lies not in diluting our voice within the Labour Party, but in making better use of these structures so that they are more responsive to trade union demands.

The Collins review provides an opportunity for trade unions to strengthen rather than weaken these procedures, of reinforcing the link rather than breaking it.

But it will not happen if we allow the principle of collective affiliation to be significantly diluted.

Stick with option one and be prepared to settle on option three.

Keith Ewing is professor of public law at King’s College, London. This article first appeared on Left Futures.

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