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Nick de Bois MP: Why shouldn't union members choose who gets their political levy?

Nick de Bois is the Member of Parliament for Enfield North and a Secretary of the 1922 Committee. Follow Nick on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-07-06 at 20.16.45As Labour fall mercy to the playground bullying tactics of Len McClusky and the UNITE leadership, it would be a mistake to think that all members of that union will approve of the power play struggle between the opposition and its biggest financial backer.

It is easy for McClusky and his associates to assume that all trade unionists vote Labour, and that indeed all UNITE members approve of their union subscriptions going to the Labour Party. In fact, polling in 2009 (the latest available) showed that a third of union members intended to vote Conservative, and UNITE themselves found only 45% of their members intended to vote Labour, according to their own leaked papers).

The fact is the "workers" that McClusky claims to represent may not be as keen on Labour and their policies as one might expect. Let's face it, those working hard to make a living are just as likely to approve of Conservative policies to reform welfare, curb immigration and lower taxes. As Isabel Hardiman has argued, they joined the union because they were workers, not Leftists.

So it is all the more wrong that we still allow union leaders to misrepresent their members' opinions, and to apportion part of their subs to support a party – Labour - for which many of them will not vote. That is why the unions' "political funds" must change. Because as they stand right now, they are the embodiment of career trade unionist leaders' disdain for their members' views – and the political weapon of choice for the more militant ones.

For me personally, it is right that trade unionists should be able to opt-in to a political levy. Trade unions have become more than just old-fashioned bargaining collectives, and if that's what their members are happy with that, then so be it. However it is an antiquated notion that anyone who believes their union should act as a lobbyist for change should be forced to do so via the Labour Party alone.

This all-or-nothing approach is reminiscent of the "you're with us or you're against us" attitude of the past. Today, we live today in an era in which causes matter more often than not than political parties. As MPs, we are all too aware that the days of political parties having millions of members between them has long gone. We now live in a country in which pressure groups, charities and campaigning organisations have at least as much relevance as political parties. The endless stream of 38 Degrees inspired emails on everything from badgers to trees are testament to this change.

So here is a proposal. Keep the political levy – on a voluntary, opt-in basis. However. allow individual members to decide which political party should receive their individual subscription –and apportion it accordingly. And then let's really empower the individual member by allowing them to give their donation to a wider range of organisations, too. Pressure groups such as Liberty or the TaxPayers' Alliance could be beneficaries, or charities such as Help The Aged, Cancer Research UK or The Royal British Legion.

If Ed Milliband really wants to break his link with unions, as he unconvincingly claims, perhaps he should start by urging his union backers to let their members decide whether to break their link with the Labour Party.


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