Ever since its founding 113 years ago, Britain’s Labour Party has relied on trade unions for much of its money, membership and support. But as the party tries to modernize its image and be a more viable alternative to David Cameron’s struggling Conservatives, that is changing.
On Tuesday, Labour Leader Ed Miliband responded to a series of recent scandals by announcing several proposed changes to the way the party nominates candidates and how it receives donations from unions. Mr. Miliband insisted the changes will strengthen the party, but others said they will result in a cut to membership and funding. Among the proposals are plans to end a long-standing practice of automatically affiliating union members to the party, introducing U.S.-style primaries for candidate nominations and putting spending limits on nomination races.
“Our relationship with individual trade union members needs to change,” Mr. Miliband said in a speech in London. “We live in a totally different era than when the Labour Party was founded.”
Mr. Miliband’s moves reflect changing times for centre-left parties in several countries. Many have been trying to broaden their appeal by shedding outdated socialist rhetoric and loosening ties with labour unions. In Canada, the New Democratic Party stopped setting aside 25 per cent of the votes in leadership contests to unions in 2011 and it has moved toward the centre on several issues. France’s Socialist Party used a primary system for the first time in the last presidential race to select its candidate and Australia’s Labor Party is considering changes to the way it elects leaders, which will curb the power of unions.
Until now, Mr. Miliband had been seen as a strong supporter of unions and his election as party leader in 2010 was due to union backing. Today, nearly all of the party’s funding comes from union donations, up from about half under Tony Blair, who largely cast that money aside.
The idea has drawn support from many union leaders and Mr. Blair, who said the reforms were long overdue. “This is a defining moment and I think it’s bold and it’s strong,” Mr. Blair told Sky News.
Mr. Miliband’s outlook abruptly changed recently amid a growing controversy over a nomination contest in Falkirk. The Scottish riding is considered a safe Labour seat and the current Member of Parliament, Eric Joyce, is retiring, meaning whoever wins the nomination is likely to be the next MP. Britain’s largest union, Unite, has been accused of allegedly rigging the balloting to ensure its candidate won.
The union has denied the allegations, but Mr. Miliband has called in the police to investigate. Meanwhile, allegations have surfaced about misconduct by other unions in Labour nominations elsewhere.
Mr. Miliband’s proposals are risky. At present, most unions collect about $2 a week from each member for a political fund, which the union uses for various causes. Nearly all unions are affiliated to the Labour Party and they contribute a portion of the fund to the party based on the number of members in their union. Labour receives more than $12-million annually through these fees.
Under Mr. Miliband’s plan, unions will still collect the levy but members will have to indicate if they want their fee to go to the Labour Party. “I do not want any individual to be paying money to the Labour Party in affiliation fees unless they have deliberately chosen to do so,” Mr. Miliband said.
Gregor Gall, a professor of industrial relations at Bradford University, said Mr. Miliband’s reforms of the membership fees could be meaningless. Unions can still make donations on their own, even if members opt out of sending their fee, meaning the party’s funding won’t change. “I think that the majority of money that Labour gets is from these donations, it’s not actually from the membership subscriptions,” Prof. Gall said.