[The furore over Falkirk and Labour’s relationship with the unions] conveniently masks a potential scandal ... the government’s announcement on political lobbying, soiled by its unexpected inclusion of an attack on trade union support for the Labour Party.
Apparently any money spent by an affiliated union campaigning at an election is to be treated not only as a “third party expenditure” as at present, but also as a Labour Party expenditure for the purposes of electoral law. As such, it will count towards the Party’s electoral spending limit.
Since 2001, there has been a limit on the amount of money a political party can spend at an election, the limit being based on the number of candidates standing in the party’s name. For parties that put up candidates in every constituency, this works out at somewhere just below £20 million on the campaigning costs incurred in the year before the election.
A separate limit applies to so-called third parties — businesses, pressure groups and trade unions. Here the limit is set somewhere just below £1 million in the year before the election, on election campaign costs incurred supporting or opposing a particular political party.
The government’s plan appears to be that affiliated union expenditure will be treated as Labour Party expenditure whether or not the Party has approved it, and whether or not the Party benefits from it. As such, the proposal looks like it has been lifted straight from anti-union political funding legislation recently introduced by a right wing government in New South Wales.
It is also a disgraceful example of government proposing to use the power of the state in breach of “an established custom” recognised by Churchill in 1948, that “matters affecting the interests of rival parties should not be settled by the imposition of the will of one side over the other”...
The proposal is almost certainly unlawful in this country, as it is said convincingly to be in Australia. First, it is a violation of the Convention rights of affiliated unions, which alone of electoral participants will be gagged for a year before an election, unless they do one of two things. Either they can disaffiliate from the Labour Party to retain electoral freedom; or they can seek Party permission to incur an expenditure that will be attributed to the Party.
Either way, the right to freedom of expression of trade unions is thus made conditional. It is conditional on not exercising their right to freedom of association by affiliating to the Labour Party in the first place. But if unions exercise their right to freedom of association, it is conditional on securing the permission of the Party to exercise their right to freedom of expression. It is implausible to believe that freedom of expression can be contingent in this way, all the more so when the contingency applies in such a discriminatory manner.
But it is not only affiliated unions that will have cause to complain: so will the Labour Party. The Labour Party’s case will arise where a union incurs expenditure without its approval, which will nevertheless be treated as the speech of the Party, even though the Party is opposed to the speech in question.
This cannot be consistent with the idea of freedom of expression, which is designed to enable me to say what I think, not to hold me responsible for what someone else may think. It is grotesque.
• From the website of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom. Full text: bit.ly/lobby-ke