On austerity, the Labour-union link and the threat of state funding political parties

This is an abridged version of the speech by Billy Hayes to the 28 February 2015 AGM of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy.

It is a privilege to address your conference. CLPD gives coherence to everything the left stands for inside of the party – to be practical, effective and principled. There is no difference amongst us, I’m sure, on the need to return Labour government on 7 May but at present, if the situation in Scotland remains unchanged, the best we maybe saying is Labour is the largest party.

It didn’t have to be this way. Let’s recall that during 2012 labour was scoring 10 points above the Tories. Then Ed Miliband and Ed balls announced their decision to adopt austerity as a Labour policy. This can be dressed up as a fairer policy approach than the coalition. And no doubt it could be so. But with comparable spending limits come comparable cuts.

That was a disappointment, and a tremendous blow to Labour’s standing in the polls. The SNP and the Greens have benefited from Labour voters deciding to support a party that opposes austerity. If we can’t convince the Labour leadership at present then we must keep up the pressure in the future.

The victory of Syriza in Greece is very important for the future of the EU. The failure of any other government in the EU to stand up against austerity means the new Greek government is isolated, in the short term. But the movement throughout Europe is changing fast, notably in Spain and Ireland. Given the current stagnation in the Eurozone, it’s hard to believe that people will accept further austerity which will only deepen the economic stagnation. Our task is still to deliver a Labour government, despite the leadership’s current support for austerity. Only with a Labour government do we have the chance of a better more progressive, economic policy.

Since CLPD’s last AGM, we’ve had the findings of the Collins review endorsed at Labour’s spring conference last year. It is then appropriate to consider how that is likely to affect our future work. The introduction of the affiliated supporters category is likely to lead to a reduction in union subscriptions. Each union will be using the five-year period to try and maximise the number of affiliated supporters.

The CWU you is preparing its first exercise in offering members the choice of opting in or out. I envisage the union having to in the engage in this exercise a number of times. None of us can be certain what percentage of levy-players are likely to become affiliated supporters. All of us, I would guess, believe that it is likely to be considerably less than the current affiliated levels.

Certainly there are incentives to organise and argue for take-up. Immediately after the general election we face the important contest for Labour’s nominee for London Mayor. Given that this is being decided through a primary, the unions will have to put a lot of effort into signing up members if they want to have an influence in the contest.

We will have to use every argument possible. We will have to deploy every type of communication – traditional and social media – in order to get the maximum support. Of course I believe it is essential for progressive politics that the unions remain affiliated to the party. Yes it is hard to believe that there will not be a change in the weight of the unions in the party.

Here too, I believe that a major danger facing us is that a Labour government, or a Labour led government, would be tempted to extend the state funding of political parties. There Is likely to be a big drop in finance coming from the levy payers. Inevitably, there will be pressure to make donations proportionate to those affiliation levels.

It is hard to see how the party is not going to take a financial hit. State funding will then be suggested as the real solution to any shortfall. I think this is a strong likelihood. You can imagine that Progress and their allies will favour this solution. it would further remove the elected politicians from dependency upon a mass membership.

State funding will make the leadership less sensitive and accountable to membership meets. In the other direction, it will hollow out the activist base of the party. State funding will strengthen the tendency towards making politics the preserve of a small number of professional politicians. It will also strengthen the hand of those who see politics as a matter of simply providing the best administration – with very little difference in policy.

So this is a big threat and I know CLPD is alert to this. We do have five years to define and stabilise the unions affiliation levels to the party. So we must prepare for a prolonged campaign. But I wanted to talk about some of the immediate problems, because CLPD has never been afraid to face up to difficulties.