Union-Labour links 'must be more democratic'

Tony Blair last year at the TUC conference in Brighton
Tony Blair last year at the TUC conference in Brighton

Most Labour activists believe unions should give their members more input on how they spend their political funds, a new survey reveals.

Research by the New Politics Network finds that 56 per cent of Labour activists agree with the statement that trade union members should have more say over how much money is donated to political parties. Just 17 per cent disagree.

Unions are legally required to separate the money they use for political campaigning from that used for other activities, and although members automatically sign up to paying into the political fund, they can opt out.

Some unions, such as Unison, have a specific fund for activities related to Labour. Amicus only has one type of political fund but it is affiliated to the party and members can expect at least some of their political levy to be spent on Labour.

Today's research finds general support among Labour activists for making this system more democratic, but there is no appetite for banning trade union donations to political parties, with just one per cent backing this idea.

The financial links between Labour and the trade unions are one of the subjects being considered by Hayden Philips' review into party political funding, which was set up by the government in the wake of the cash for peerages row.

Labour's submission to the review makes clear that it believes these links should remain, and it is not hard to see why - the latest figures from the Electoral Commission reveal the vast majority of the party's funding in the past three months came from union donations.

In today's survey, 79 per of Labour activists say they believe existing party structures should be respected in any funding changes, but just 44 per cent of Conservative activists and 40 per cent of Liberal Democrats agree.

Despite David Cameron's condemnation of Labour's reliance on the unions, just 47 per cent of Tories backed a complete ban on trade union donations, with 42 per cent opposing the idea. More than half (55 per cent) of Lib Dems were also against it.

But there was significant support for a cap on how much unions could give to parties - 45 per cent of both Tory and Lib Dem activists said they would support a limit of £5 per member, compared to just 14 per cent of Labour respondents.

"The government's attempt to form a consensus on introducing a cap on party donations will stand or fall on whether or not it can get agreement on what should happen with trade union donations," said New Politics Network Peter Facey.

He added: "What is encouraging about this survey is that it would suggest that Labour activists themselves feel the system could be made more democratic, and that their Conservative rivals are more open-minded about compromise than the rhetoric coming from their own front bench would suggest."


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