Will Ed take on the real power base in the party?
Though Cowards Flinch is springing back into life, just like I said it definitely wouldn’t, with some instant reaction on Ed Miliband’s pre-announcement on the funding link between Labour and the affiliated unions.
I’ll leave aside for now the legitimacy of a Labour leader announcing such sweeping changes, so soon after the completion of the Refounding Labour process that many members took a sincere part in, and apparently with no consultation with anyone other than his inner circle. I’ll also leave aside the stuff about primaries, and focus instead on the plan to move from an ‘opt-out’ to an ‘opt-in’ funding mechanism for all affiliated unions, in the hope that a new raft of engaged individual members will make sensible decisions at local party level, and counterbalance the perceived nuttiness of their union leaders.
If that’s the extent of it, it won’t work. The idea that a sufficient number of union members will actively part with a part of their weekly cash in support of a party many or most perceive to be made up of Westminster village tossers is just pie-in the-sky. No matter that, objectively speaking, it is in their interests to maintain a robust Labour party – it takes a lot more than that to resolve the free rider problem. Then, as Mark at Labourlist rightly suggests, very low opt-in numbers will threaten the very notion of union affiliation.
The ONLY way the opt-in will work is if it accompanied by a radical restructuring to local party level of the way it spends its money, such that local members get a real say, and therefore a real reason for local, solidaristic opt-in. I’ve described this process already in my own (utterly ignored) Refounding Labour submission (section 5), and in my submission to the party treasurer candidates. Essentially, it involves dividing up and/or retaining all party income at CLP level, and using a bottom up process to decide how it is spent.
Thus, if an MP wants to fund an office, s/he will need to submit a business plan setting out what they’ll spend and why, and then be accountable to the party for that spend. Effectively, the MP/PPS becomes a CEO of a medium-sized local charity, and the CLP appoints a broad (its executive) to oversee the MP or PPS (and MEP).
I repeat: this is the only way that Ed Miliband’s current proposals will work. He’s done the easy bit, challenging the affiliated unions to accept the virtues of opt-in engagement. The question is: does he have the guts to take on the PLP’s power base in the interest of real party democracy and growth.