There is some confusion about Unite’s position in relation to the political levy and today’s announcement by Labour leader Ed Miliband. This is because the same words are being used to describe two different things.
"Opt in" or "opt out"?
One is whether trade unionists should “opt in” or “opt out” of their union’s political levy – the very small part of their membership subscriptions which is paid into a separate political fund, the uses of which are regulated by law.
Unions have to secure the continued assent of their members to maintain a political fund in a secret ballot once every 10 years, as Unite members did by an overwhelming margin just two months ago. The legal position is that unions must also offer their members an opportunity to “opt out” of paying into the political fund. Should the member not do so, the payment is made automatically.
Changing this situation to an “opt in” – as the Conservative government did in 1927 as an act of revenge for the General Strike – would deplete the union’s political fund, inhibit its ability to campaign on a range of political issues and constitute a further interference in the right of trade unions to regulate their own affairs, democratically accountable to their members. It would also, obviously, require fresh parliamentary legislation. This is the issue Len McCluskey was referring to in his article in The Guardian this morning.
Associate Labour Party members
As Ed Miliband made clear today, he is not proposing any changes to this arrangement. Instead, he is proposing that those members who pay the political levy – the great majority of Unite’s membership – be additionally asked whether they wish to be considered associate members of the Labour Party. The union would then only affiliate those members to the party.
This is a further “opt in” which does not require any legislation, and is a matter for the Labour Party itself. It would, of course, reduce the number of members Unite affiliates to the Labour Party from, effectively, all political levy payers to those who indicate an individual willingness to be so affiliated.
This is an extremely significant change but it is one which Unite is determined to positively engage with, unlike a legislative assault on the political fund, which it would strongly oppose.