Leaders: Miliband decision on unions the right one

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ED MILIBAND is entirely right to announce that trade union members should only contribute to the Labour Party if they explicitly say they want to.

Maintaining the party’s present system of allowing trade unionists to opt out of paying the ­political levy to the party of a union leader’s choice has become patently indefensible as anti-democratic.

Of the 15 trade unions affiliated to Labour, only one – Unison – allows new members to choose whether to opt in to paying the political levy. The others, although they have to allow their members to opt out, make it difficult to do so, with the result that only about a tenth actually do opt out. Given that analysis of trade unionist voting patterns suggest that less than four in ten Unite members voted Labour at the last general election, when at least nine in ten paid party dues, the opt-in provision is clearly an overdue reform.

If it turns out that the main allegation which brought this matter to a head – that Unite abused its party power by joining its members to the Falkirk East Labour Party without their knowledge – turns out to be true, then the ordinary non-aligned voter would be quite entitled to conclude, in the absence of reform, that Mr Miliband and his party is the creature of narrow vested interests in the shape of trade union leaders.

Though it may surprise these leaders, they are not regarded fondly by the general public. Their support for Labour has value, but it is distinctly limited as they are not even universally admired by their own members. Thus, were Mr Miliband to kow-tow to them, it would make his party unelectable, as neither Labour nor the Conservatives can win a majority at Westminster without winning the middle ground.

The same is true for Labour in Scotland – it cannot hope to win without wooing voters from well beyond its traditional heartlands, a feat which Alex Salmond and the SNP have managed at the last two Holyrood elections.

Mr Miliband’s move serves two other political purposes. Because trade union leaders are both seen as powerful within the Labour Party and also as its paymasters, being seen to stand up against them for what is evidently right suggests that he is not the weak leader he is often portrayed as being. It also suggests that he is not going to be bullied into adopting the narrow leftist agenda that Unite clearly wants, oblivious to the fact that it is likely to be an election-losing agenda.

Analysts suggest that adoption of opt-in levy paying may cost Labour some £5 million a year in income. But Mr Miliband may have judged it could have other compensations – such as clearing the way for further reform of political donations, particularly that there should be a cap on individual gifts. If so, this move may also eventually pose problems for others. Although forced in to a difficult decision, Mr Miliband has made the right one.

Rural broadband worth the money

Miles of tarmac and train tracks used to be the key tools for economic development of remoter areas and binding them more cohesively into the national fabric, but these days it is the spread and speed of telecommunications that count.

So the announcement that £264 million is to be spent ensuring that 85 per cent of Scotland’s properties are to be connected by the latest generation of broadband cabling by the end of 2015 and 95 per cent by the end of 2017 is good news.

Some of the earliest incarnations of faster telecommunication technologies – such as the installation of ISDN lines in the Highlands and Islands – have long since proved their worth. Not only have they enabled ­modern digital businesses to be a success despite their location a long way from their markets, they have also revolutionised the delivery of public services.

Patients have been relieved of the need for long and arduous road journeys to see consultants or to have X-rays taken and interpreted; such consultations can now be handled by doctors sitting in front of television screens talking to patients hundreds of miles away. Specialised education can be delivered in similar fashion.

This is why it is well worth putting taxpayers’ money together with cash from BT to make the investment possible for the returns which a private telecoms firm could earn from remote communities could not justify private investment alone.

Better communications and the ability to better run businesses from remote parts of Scotland may well be the very stuff that keeps these communities flourishing and Scotland the diverse nation that it is.