UK Politics

Some justification to Labour union fee plan - McCluskey

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Media captionUnite leader Len McCluskey: Some moral justification

There is "some moral justification" to Labour's plan to end the automatic affiliation fee for some trade union members, the leader of Unite has said.

Len McCluskey's remarks to the BBC were the first time he directly addressed proposals outlined by Labour leader Ed Miliband earlier this week.

But he said Mr Miliband must show union members that he was "on their side".

It comes amid a thawing in the dispute between Unite and Mr Miliband over the selection of an election candidate.

Unite, one of the party's biggest donors, has been accused of enrolling its members into the Constituency Labour Party in Falkirk - some without their knowledge - in an effort to get its preferred candidate selected.

Mr McCluskey denies that people were recruited without knowing about it, and says Unite worked within the rules.

Speaking ahead of his speech at the annual Durham Miners' Gala, Mr McCluskey said: "At the moment Unite affiliates one million of our members who pay our political levy to Labour.

"Ed has said 'I don't think that's right, I think it should be people who want to be associated with Labour'.

"And I have to say I think there's some moral justification for that. So that's why I've received his proposals with enthusiasm."

The Labour leader announced plans to overhaul the current system of union funding, which sees members of supportive unions pay an automatic levy to Labour, unless they choose to opt out.

In future, only those union members who "deliberately" chose to join the party would make contributions but unions have warned the changes could lose the party millions of pounds and may be unworkable.

Up to now Mr McCluskey only said the proposals were "bold and brave" and would be "happy to engage in discussions".

In his speech to the gala, Mr McCluskey said he was ready to discuss Mr Miliband's plans if they can "re-engage" his members with the Labour movement and its political objectives.

But he warned Mr Miliband his party reform plans will fail unless he does more to distance himself from New Labour.

The Conservatives have seized on the row to claim Labour had been taken over by the union.


The Unite leader said that Labour "can only exist if it remains the voice of ordinary working people" and argued the party - which has accepted the coalition's spending cuts for 2015-6 - must change economic direction if it is to retain union support.

He told the gala: "Ed Miliband has now announced the biggest ever shake-up in the trade union Labour link - a link over 100 years old," he will say. "Yes, it's a gamble - change worth having always is.

"But if we are to go out and convince thousands of working class men and women that they want to sign up to be associate Labour Party members they will not be interested in the rulebook, or even the history.

Image caption Mr McCluskey and other union leaders addressed the annual miners' gala in Durham

"They will want to know - will Labour make a difference?

"Will the next Labour government reverse the present coalition's disastrous policies? Will it be different not just from Cameron and his crew but from the Blair-Brown years as well?

"If we can say 'Yes, Labour has learned, and Labour is on your side' then this scheme will work. But if our people - our members - are unclear as to the answer then no amount of persuading will get them to sign up."

Referring to Unite's actions in Falkirk, Mr McCluskey said: "The Parliamentary Labour Party today does not look like, or think like, the working class communities it seeks to represent.

"That is a serious problem... That is what Unite was fighting for in Falkirk - to give the working class a take in our democracy. I make no apology for that."

Dozens of brass bands entertained crowds lining the streets for the annual Durham Miners' Gala.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady used her speech to claim union donations are the "cleanest in politics", and argue for greater representation of ordinary workers at Westminster.

Rail union leader Bob Crow, meanwhile, urged trade unions to set up a new left-wing alternative to the Labour Party.

He said: "If others want to stick around and be insulted by those whose only interest is our money and not our ideas then that's a matter for them."

Mr Crow - whose RMT union was expelled from the Labour Party - is reported to be in talks with the Communist Party of Britain and other-left wing groups to re-launch "No2EU - Yes to Democracy" to fight next year's European elections.

The anti-EU party, set up with RMT funds, contested the 2009 European elections, but gained just 1% of the vote nationally.

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