In answer to media questions after his speech on the union link (9 July), Ed Miliband was asked specifically about whether the Unison political fund arrangements might provide a model for the shift to 'opting-in' to overt political affiliation for which he is looking.
He said that it might be part of the answer. It is therefore important to understand what the Unison arrangements actually are. Unison does not have two political funds (the law does not provide for this). In law, Unison has one political fund with two sections. The two sections are described (and accounted for) as if they were distinct funds, however.
The General Political Fund (GPF) is used like the political funds of non-affiliated trade unions, for general political campaigning, subject to the proviso that it cannot be used to support a political party. About two thirds of Unison members who haven't opted out altogether pay into the GPF. The GPF is administered by a committee of the national executive council, consisting exclusively of, and elected exclusively by, executive members who pay into the GPF. Formally it is not otherwise accountable to Unison's conference or NEC (although in practice it is at the disposal of the union generally).
The Affiliated Political Fund (APF) - known in recent years as 'Unison Labour Link' - is used like the political funds of affiliated trade unions, to pay our affiliation and for donations to the Labour Party. It also bears the cost of the separate structure of regional and national meetings which administer the APF, which has its own operational rules and is not directly accountable to Unison's conference or executive. Approximately a third of Unison members who pay into our political fund are in the APF.
Existing members can choose, at any point, to switch between the two sections of the political fund, to opt-out altogether or (for a small additional payment) to be a member of both sections of the political fund.
When they join, new members are offered a choice to tick one of two boxes for each section of the fund. Many don't. Those who don't are sent a reminder. Many don't reply.
Because they have not opted out of the (in law) one political fund (just not chosen between two different sections) these new members are then allocated administratively, 50% to the GPF and 50% to the APF.
Without this administrative allocation process, if the only members who were allocated to the APF were those who made a positive choice, the proportion of APF payers - that is, those whose money will go to Labour - would fall well below 33% in a few years.
This isn't the time or place for a detailed history of the Unison arrangements and their consequences. Unison's unique arrangements, which exist because of the need to broker a merger twenty years ago between a non-affiliated union and two smaller affiliated unions, should not however be characterised as an 'opt-in' arrangement, nor do they deliver the individuated relationship between trade unionists and the Labour Party which Ed Miliband appears to seek.