Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Trade off By Noel Lynch (originally in Green World autumn 2010)

So Ed Miliband won the battle of the brothers and has been installed as leader of the Labour party. Congratulations to him. We can only hope that he will help take Labour in a more progressive direction and promote positive policies to reduce carbon emissions and tackle inequality.

While you may feel that the leadership contest did not generate much insight into important areas of policy it did, at least, reveal how many ordinary people are accidentally financing the Labour party.

Most trade union funds are spent representing members and furthering their interests. Green party policy is wholly supporting of the role trade unions play. It is also an important principle that trade unions are free to finance general political activity to support campaigning for workers’ rights and greater equality. However trade union members should decide for themselves whether they pay money to the Labour party.

Many Green party members and supporters will have been amongst the millions of people issued a ballot for the Labour party leadership election. While I am sure that most would have resisted the temptation to influence the internal affairs of another party (particularly as most ballot forms required a declaration of support for Labour party aims and objectives – whatever they happen to be today – for the vote to be valid) the very fact that a ballot paper was sent indicates that the addressee was directly or indirectly financing the Labour party.

Did you receive a ballot paper? Did you know that you were funding the Labour party? A little background will help explain the situation and how you can opt out of financing your political opponents.

Most ballots issued to non-Labour party members were issued by trade unions. The link between trade unions and the Labour party is historic and remains deep-rooted. Today fifteen major national unions are affiliated to the Labour party (many trade unions have never been affiliated and more recently the RMT was expelled and the FBU disaffiliated).

Ballot papers were only distributed to members of affiliated trades unions who pay the “political levy”. This is the part of the membership subscription that goes towards the political fund. It is the political fund that is used to finance the Labour party, so receipt of a leadership ballot is a sign that you are contributing to the Labour party’s coffers.

The principle of trade union financing of the Labour party relies on inertia (or, if you prefer the language of the policy wonks who contested the Labour leadership: nudge theory). Members are opted into paying the levy and are largely ignorant of the fact that they are doing so. Events like a leadership election serve as a useful reminder of the fact. If you received a ballot paper you should consider whether you should opt out of paying the levy. Now is also a good time to raise the issue with friends or family members who may not have known they are funding Labour.

Opting out of paying the political levy could not be simpler. Many unions will provide a form for members to fill out for this purpose but it is enough to write to your union along the following lines: "I give notice that I object to contributing to the Labour Party through the Political Fund of the Union, and am in consequence exempt, in the manner provided for by Chapter VI of Part 1 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, from contributing to any political fund that donates to the Labour party."

Trade unions perform a vital function in society and are a progressive force. Trade union links with the Green party are increasing all the time: trade unions are training a generation of workplace environmental reps; trade union leaders have addressed Green party conferences; the FBU donated to the Green party; Caroline Lucas is vice-chair of the PCS parliamentary group. There is an active trade union group in the Green party that you can join if you are interested in workers’ rights*. Opting out of paying a political levy is not an anti-union gesture; it is a step towards realigning the interests of trade unions towards the real interests of their members.


Noel Lynch is Coordinator of the London Federation of Green Parties and founder (with Danny Bates) of the Green Party Trade Union Group.

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