One of the wonders of politics is how the law of unintended consequences plays out. You decide you have an evil you wish to address, you think you can address it through legislation, and it turns out, either you can't, or people change their behaviour, or that the person worst affected by your legislation is someone you want to protect.
So when I read the text of ASLEFs proposed motion to the Labour party, what struck me was how many groups within the Labour party would find themselves captured by the text.
The draft resolution attempts to assert control over political organisations who conduct 'Internal Activity' in the Labour party, yet are not afilliated to, or associated with the party.
Such bodies will first, have to notify the party of any legally reportable donations, second, have to give 50% of all donated income over £25,000 to the party. Further, if they are incorporated, they would have to supply all their financial and constitutional details to the party to "ensure that they meet acceptable standards of democracy, governance and transparency".
This is all intended to be a constitutional attack on Progress, whose critics believe is a malign, massively funded force using its income to distort Labour's internal elections by supporting the candidacies of dangerous right wingers like Luke Akehurst, Ellie Reeves and Peter Wheeler, fringe politicians like David Miliband and so on. As you can tell from recent selection results, Progress has been remarkably successful in these aims.
However, as drafted, this amendment would capture far more than just Progress.
Take Tribune magazine. Tribune Magazine is a limited company, with full time employees. It promotes candidates in Labour party internal elections, organises conferences, has a clear editorial position, and has a (fairly somnolent) group of Labour MPs aligned to its editorial position. Under even the loosest interpretation of the phrase*, it is engaged in 'Internal Activities'.
Last year, Tribune recieved a significant donation from its owner (amount unknown) so it could continue functioning. Under this proposed rule, it is hard to see how Tribune could have avoided giving half of that donation to the Labour party. This would have had the likely effect of closing the magazine down.
Nor, as currently constituted, is Tribune particularly democratic, though I understand it is trying to reformulate itself as a co-operative, so this may change.
Or take Compass – Compass is a democratic membership body, with an income of over £250,000 a year (it gets £40,000 from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation alone, and has recieved £71,000 from Unions in a single year). Last year it reported over £80,000 of it's annual income as coming from donations of over £5,000, plus members donations of another £37,000. It's likely that a good two thirds of Compass income is made up of donations.
Compass endorses and campaigns for candidates in internal elections such as leadership and deputy leadership elections, has its own policy and publicity programme, and a series of 'local groups'. Again, it is hard to see how Compass would not fall within the scope of the proposed amendment, and would therefore be forced to hand over half of its donor income over £25,000 each year.
Given Compass's costs are staff, publication and conferences, this would have a major impact on their activities.
Finally, what about a body to which no-one seems to have any objection to, Labourlist? Labourlist is a limited company, which recieves funding from both advertising and donations, the latter mostly from Trade Union sponsors. Given office space, running and staffing costs, I would be suprised if they weren't at or above the £25,000 limit. I have no idea about its governing structure.
Labourlist would have a hard time claiming that it was not involved in internal activity, since, for example, it is currently running campaigns on party reform, runs regular polls on the performance of shadow ministers, and has little or no democratic accountabililty. On the other hand, It might be in a somewhat safer position than Compass or Tribune, as I'm not aware of it making specific endorsements in Labour election, having a membership structure, or an associated political organisation.
Now, all of the organisations I've listed play a vital part in the life of the Labour party. I'd hate to see any of them be crippled by a poorly drafted constitutional amendment.
Thankfully, there's an easy way round the amendment, that all the groups could use, and as a service to all, I shall explain it to all.
You follow the Tribune route and seperate the functioning of any political activity from your publications. So you'd set up say CompassPublicationsCo, with a board.
This would apply for donations, grants and so on, publish reports and discuss politics. Each year, it would make a donation of £25k to CompassMembersCo, which would use the money for any "Internal activity" within the Labour party, such as event organising, supporting candidates, training supporters to do well in internal elections or whatever. This can be as democratic as you like.
So there you go. The proposed amendment will put a brake on the activities of organisations that are useful to the Labour party, but only so long as they don't have the organisational smarts of a three year old child.
I should say I am a contributing editor at Progress. However, I'm also anti-social and I have not discussed the above with anyone at Progress.
* I'm not aware of a definition of 'Internal Activities' in the rulebook. It could be defined by the previous section 5a's definition of non-eligble groups for afilliation as "having their own programme, principles and policy for distinctive and separate propaganda, or possessing branches in the constituencies, or engaged in the promotion of parliamentary or local government candidates, or having allegiance to any political organisation situated abroad" though at least half of these are external, not internal activities.
Further, this definition is intended to define organisations that are 'ineligible for afiliation' to the Labour party. This, according to Rule 5A of Chapter 2 of 2010 Labour party rules, is grounds for expulsion from the party. It's difficult to see how the party could apply the same definition to groups it seeks to both regulate and expel.
Some different definition is clearly implied, since such internal activity is apparently not itself to be prohibited, while the membership of non-eligible organisation is. Arguably, the proposed amendment creates a third class of political organisations – those not ineligible for afilliation to the party, but are not afilliated, and political in nature. It then seeks to regulate these groups, and appropiate a large share of their income.