Ed Miliband is nothing if not persistent. Party funding has been a
running theme of his leadership, necessitated by his cosy relationship with the unions. He has returned to the subject today, with a "http://www.edmiliband.org/taking-big-money-out-of-politics">blog post and an appearance on the Andrew Marr Show. The news is that
Miliband wants to cap donations from individuals, organisations and companies at £5,000. That is £5,000 less than was recommended by Sir Christopher Kelly, and £45,000 less than
the Conservatives propose. Miliband claimed that this would dramatically reduce Labour’s funding from the trade unions, forcing his party to diversify its revenue sources. Obviously, it would also
reduce the Tories’ funding sources.
This is classic opposition politics, putting the Tories in an awkward position by proposing something so radical as to be unworkable, even within the structures of the Labour party, which are of
course dominated by the unions. And it is playing politics by vowing not to play politics. Miliband was quite restrained on Marr, refusing to attack the Tories directly and concentrating on
the need to revive politics in the eyes of the public. ‘Politics is at a low ebb,’ he said. But he is much less restrained in the blog post. He writes, ‘If you ever needed reasons why
we must change our politics, you only need to look at the antics of this out of touch Government in recent weeks: a Budget which forces millions to pay more so that millionaires can pay less, drawn
up on the advice of some of the Conservative Party’s millionaire donors.’
The Tories have responded by tearing his proposals apart, labelling them ‘almost meaningless’. The bone of contention is, predictably, the unions. Miliband’s cap would not include
union affiliation fees – the £3 levy that union members pay, which is then granted to the Labour Party unless members deliberately opt-out. Because of this, the Tories say that
Milband’s cap would have limited Labour’s funding by just one per cent last year. Grant Shapps has just told Andrew Neil’s Sunday Politics programme that Miliband’s
intervention is a ‘complete wheeze, one of the most disingenuous interviews I think I’ve seen all year.’
But his criticism is itself rather disingenuous. As Andrew Neil pointed out, donations from the unions tend to dwarf the affiliation fees in an election year. He quoted figures from 2010 that
showed affiliation fees worth £7.9 million being outstripped by donations of £13 million. That flow of cash would be significantly reduced, as Miliband says.
Both parties have pledged to talk more about this subject. But, judging by Shapps’ retort to Neil that Miliband’s cap would cripple Labour one year in five while the Tories are hit
every year, the issue of affiliations is likely to be an immovable stumbling block in those discussions. And rightly so – although it’s interesting that the Conservatives seem reluctant
to engage with union members about this, which is exercising that handful of Tory backbenchers, like Robert Halfon, who believe
that the party must court union organisations if it is to win seats in the North and the Midlands to secure a majority.