Time for state funding of political parties

When somebody wants to end a relationship, they don’t engage in a rational conversation, they engage in rudeness, spite, and provocation. The end of the end may be a rational discussion, but the beginning of the end nearly always starts with unpleasantness. The manner of Len McClusky’s conduct in recent times has been unacceptable. This is not clumsiness, ignorance or accident. It is downright rude, and he knows it.

When the Tories have attacked Labour’s union relationship in the past, it has had little effect. Voters know Labour is fearful of indulging the unions to much, and that the unions are benevolent to ordinary people. However, the recent Tory attacks are different. Cameron, at PMQs, was not attacking Len McClusky, he was attacking Ed Miliband. His allegation was that Miliband is not in control.

My first observation of the power of unions over Labour was at the 2009 Bournemouth conference. I arrived as delegate, excited and empowered with my vote. I wanted to put forward a motion and lobby other delegates to back my ideas. I soon realised that the results are stitched up by the unions beforehand. The delegate vote is window dressing for the membership.

The unions own the Labour Party conference. It is an annual jamboree where they get to take the stage and pontificate before some of the most powerful politicians in the country. There is nothing wrong with this. They paid for the conference so surely they can enjoy it. But when we witness them booing the name of a former leader, Tony Blair, what are we to make of this?

At the time it was dismissed as a one-off silliness, but it didn’t end there. The contempt has continued. Do these people have a respect for the institution of the Labour Party, or are they only at conference because they are paymasters and therefore entitled to a good piss-up? If so then it’s an extremely expensive piss-up.

The unions give us millions a year, and they obviously have a duty to question whether these donations are in the interests of their fee paying members. They may also ask whether the high profile funding of Labour serves their image well, taking into account the barrage from the other main party, which must breed hostility in managers. There is a serious question as to whether funding Labour is a liability rather than an asset to the unions.

The alternative to union funding is state funding. If the level of state funding were sufficient then no party would be obliged to a specific interest group. Politics would be less dirty in terms of allegations and suspicions.

This doesn’t mean an end to the union relationship with the Labour Party. There will still be affiliations and common cause, as well as historical and cultural comfort. For example, it should be Labour’s policy to free up the law on union recruitment, because if unions were more widespread then this should cause an upward pressure on wages. However, this idea is unlikely at the moment. As David Goodman recently argued, union power causes Labour to be shy of discussing union issues. In fact, Labour doesn’t like to be seen to do anything for the unions, because of the allegation of being bought.

Politicians shouldn’t seek a Clause 4 moment, they should allow them to arrive. David Cameron damaged himself and his party by suddenly producing the same sex marriage bill. His Clause 4 opportunity happened when he was leader of the opposition. He should have confronted his party over Europe, but missed his chance and has paid ever since.

Miliband’s opportunity may be before him. Labour’s recent focus groups have reported a settled view of Miliband being “old” Labour, where “old” means unable to govern. We’re told that he can only breach this perception by doing something disruptive. The policy of s

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