It’s not healthy for parties to be reliant on a few large supporters
July 2013 may well come to be seen as the turning point in this parliament. The economy looks to have decisively turned the corner. We only hear talk of triple-dip recessions in the context of no longer talking about triple-dip recessions. Employment is rising, unemployment is falling, growth is accelerating and confidence is returning. One would expect that to feed through to the key battleground of the deficit before long.
This month has also seen Ed Miliband’s initiative on reforming the relationship between Labour and the trade unions, prompted by the Falkirk selection troubles and leading to a row between the leaderships of the Labour Party and the Unite union. While this clearly won’t have the same level of public interest or immediate impact, anything which causes parties to behave differently from how they otherwise would have done is of import.
The proposals are not mere tinkering: Miliband is gambling millions of pounds of membership-related income on being able to persuade enough affiliates to join (figures released yesterday showed that union affiliation fees were worth £8m to Labour in 2012). If he’s successful, Labour has a mighty election machine to work with; if he’s not, he could bankrupt his party.
The length of time he’s planning on taking over these reforms represents another significant risk: the discussion, planning, consultation and debate will last close to half the period between now and the start of the general election. It would be a surprise if the Conservatives and Lib Dems didn’t use Labour’s internal distractions to embed in the public’s mind their critique on the economy (namely that Labour caused the mess and had the wrong solutions both in government and opposition, and that while the measures the government took were painful, they have been proven right by events).
Another facet of the fallout from the Falkirk situation was Miliband’s renewed call for a cap on donations. This is another strand to his reforms and in essence makes good sense: political parties should ideally be mass-membership movements with many contributors, not overly reliant on (and potentially beholden to) a few large donors. Although Cameron has made much of the scale of Unite’s contributions to Labour, it is a bit of a weak point for the Tories too.
The parties of government then could do far worse than propose legislation to enact the principle of limiting donations to political parties. The rules would have to be drawn up tightly, to avoid circumvention through third parties or to multiple allied causes, or multiple donations from units within a large organisation, but it should be possible with care.
One would assume that the Lib Dems – who are regularly outgunned financially by Labour and the Tories – would welcome such a move, both for that partisan reason and on the principles that guide their support for political reform. Clegg could even be the bill’s sponsor given his remit with other reform legislation.
It’s true that the Conservatives would take a hit but all things are relative and Labour’s loss of millions of pounds of union funding would equalise that situation, perhaps more than equalise. Miliband has put the ball in play. Cameron and/or Clegg would do well to pick it up, run, and see where they can take it.