Reforming the union political levy – time to go one further

Please note this post is from my previous blog. To read my posts during the 2017 General Election campaign click here.


The launch of Renewal has made quite a splash today – a new group with an agenda of broadening the Conservatives’ appeal to working class, public sector and ethnic minority voters, particularly in the North of England.  Its launch pamphlet, Access All Areas (with contributions from many 2010 intake MPs) is well worth a read.

David Skelton makes a powerful case for why the new group is needed in the Telegraph, arguing that “by championing consumers and hard-working people, the Conservatives can become the new workers’ party”, reaching out to the working class voters long since abandoned by today’s Labour Party.  I couldn’t agree more.

One of the measures the group is recommending is a genuinely bold reform to the union political levy – not only changing the law so that union members have to ‘opt-in’ to pay the affiliation fee (rightly ending the present system that sees members automatically donate to the Labour Party unless they pro-actively choose not to), but also allowing union members to affiliate to the political party of their choice.

The Spectator’s James Forsyth reckons that  of all the policies laid out in Access All Areas, this highly topical idea is the most likely to get the attention of Number 10.   I hope he’s right.

The idea that union members can be assumed to be supporters of the Labour Party is almost comically outdated (and has been for even longer than most people might think – as David Skelton points out, more trade unionists voted for Margaret Thatcher than Jim Callaghan in 1979).  A change in the law to level this playing field is long overdue.

It is also something that would find unity within the Coalition – Nick Clegg’s enthusiasm for the same idea went disappointingly under-reported last week.  There’s even a handy vehicle that the government could use to legislate the idea into being, through an amendment to the forthcoming party funding bill.

Predictably Union bosses spent last week thrashing against even the most timid idea for reform – Ed Miliband’s unimpressive half-measure of a voluntary switch to ‘opt-in’ rather than ‘opt-out’ – arguing rather unconvincingly that it would limit their ability to represent their members.  In a testy BBC News interview, CWU boss Billy Hayes was typical in managing to argue with a straight face that abolishing the opt-out system would “reduce the influence of regular people” in politics.  This is of course absurd – ‘regular’ trade union members have no practical say in the partisan political activities of their leftist leaderships or union bosses, who are anything but regular.  These objections are nothing more than those of yet another vested interest clinging to a status quo that is beyond justification.

That union leaders are unwilling to contemplate even the most timid attempts at reform should only serve to demonstrate all the more clearly why action is needed.  Their real fear is not losing the ability to represent their members, but losing the ability to buy policiesbuy candidates, and buy the loyalty of one of the two people in our political system in a position to serve as Prime Minister in the near future at any given time.

In any reasonable and fair-minded debate over the political levy in the 21st century, the union leaderships haven’t got a leg to stand on.  By going one step further and legislating not just for an opt-in system, but also one that recognises the pluralism of our democracy, the government has an excellent opportunity to make them realise it.

Follow Renewal on Twitter @renewaluk

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