Brown willing to cut union donations in funding deal

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Labour is seeking urgent talks with opposition parties to thrash out a deal on political funding as senior figures attempt to broker a compromise over the issue of trade union donations.

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, will press ahead with fresh talks on reform after Tory leader David Cameron said he would join negotiations on the issue which broke down without agreement last month.

Senior Labour figures suggested they would give ground on demands for a 50,000-a-year cap on central union donations in return for maintaining individual affiliation fees from rank and file members.

Yesterday Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary and ex-Labour Party chairman, told the BBC the party would "look very seriously" at proposals for a 50,000 cap on donations by organisations "provided individual affiliates to unions can carry on giving their 'literally pennies' a year to the party because they feel it represents their values".

Party sources said they were prepared to consider new proposals to make union political levies more transparent as part of a deal to break the fees down into individual donations instead of large donations channelled directly through unions. Under the plans published last month by former civil servant Sir Hayden Phillips, trade unions would be subject to a cap on their central donations and would have to inform members that they were under no obligation to by a political affiliation fee.

Yesterday Mr Cameron indicated that he was willing to rejoin talks, but insisted that trade union funding would have to be part of any long term deal on party funding. He told the BBC: "Yes. I mean I proposed this almost two years ago. And I said, look, let's have a cap of 50,000 that applies to individuals, companies and trade unions, so we get away from this impression that somehow wealthy organisations, or wealthy people can have undue influence on parties. That was my proposal. If the Labour Party want to take that up then we can go ahead and reach some sort of agreement. But the unions have got to be involved in it.

"You cannot have a situation where somehow they are exempt, and I don't think that would be right."

Conservative sources made it clear that there were still a number of stumbling blocks to any deal, insisting that any agreement would have to encompass union support for MPs in marginal constituencies as well as direct trade union sponsorship of MPs.

Gordon Brown attempted to draw a line under the row over donations by proxy at the weekend by promising action on party funding and issuing a warning to the Conservatives that no party would be able to block a deal. He said: "We would all prefer all-party consensus but we will not accept one party deadlock a breakdown that serves only to block progress."

Ms Blears insisted that a stringent cap on party spending was the best way to overcome problems with party fundraising.

She called for political billboard advertising to be banned as part of measures to end the "arms race" in political spending.

She told the BBC: "What I always suggested was first of all a really small limit on expenditure. I think we could do a General Election probably for about 12million or 13million.

"We spent, and the Tories did, 6million or 7million on billboards.

"We all know billboards do not really affect the way people vote, so let's do away with billboards.

"We could get the expenditure limit right down. Then you could have small donations and at the moment the trade union individual donations are less than 6 a year and then you could look at possible caps on donations."