Jack Straw’s future and its implications for unions

Shadow Justice Secretary (and shadow deputy prime minister, which is why he has a go at Nick Clegg at the despatch box sometimes) Jack Straw will not stand for the Shadow Cabinet this autumn, and will pursue other interests instead, I heard this week. When I asked a friend if he had any jobs lined up, he replied: “Yeah – on the backbenches.” So that’s pretty clear I guess.

This has implications. Jack Straw was one of the obstacles to a cross-party agreement on reform of the funding of political parties, when Labour was in power. The sticking point was donations from trade unions; Straw’s white paper on party funding protected it, and he didn’t budge on it in talks. The Tories wanted the total donation given by a union to be treated as a single donation and capped; Labour wanted it treated as lots of individual donations from union members who were political levy payers. Unions comfortably form the single biggest source of donations to Labour; without them, the party would go broke quite fast. Now Labour is in a minority, that funding model is going to be challenged. Within a year, we could see union donations capped almost out of existence.

Question is – will his successor as shadow justice secretary act the same way when the coalition government comes asking for talks on the very same subject?

Who could be the next in line? A quick scan of Labour MPs with a profile and a background in the law suggests David Lammy, Emily Thornberry, Harriet Harman – could they be relied on to fight to preserve the union link in its current form? (Harman probably yes, seeing as her husband was deputy general secretary of Unite till recently).

Whoever is party leader by then will of course have the final say. All the candidates have said the Labour-union link must be preserved – but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be amended. And of course Labour alone cannot stop a new party funding bill from becoming law. Hence the shadow justice secertary’s crucial role, as constitutional affairs spokesperson, in deciding how much ground to cede.

Both Labour and the unions would lose if union donations were capped; if (as previously suggested) the cap were, say, £50,000 in a year, that would cut the value of the unions’ donations by hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds. The unions would lose influence; Labour would face bankruptcy.

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