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Boost for Miliband: poll shows 170,000 Unite members would opt-in to join Labour

A survey by Lord Ashcroft shows 12% of the trade union's 1.42 million members would affiliate themselves to Labour under the new system but also that they oppose large donations to the party.

Unite members take part in a TUC march in protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

How many trade union members would pay to join Labour? The question is prompted by Ed Miliband's recent speech in which he announced that in the future, trade unionists would have to opt into affiliating to Labour, rather than being automatically enrolled by general secretaries.

In an attempt to go some way to answering it, Lord Ashcroft, the Tory donor turned prolific pollster, has conducted a survey of Unite members. There was initially some mystery over how Ashcroft obtained their details (Labour itself doesn't have access to them) but it transpires that he asked 15,970 adults whether they were a member of a union, and if so which one, and conducted interviews with the 712 Unite members he found.

So, what do we learn? First, and most importantly for Labour, the poll found that 12% of Unite members would join the party under the new system. This figure, in line with private estimates by Labour and union officials, might not sound impressive but recall that Unite, Britain's biggest trade union, has 1.42 million members, meaning that the party stands to gain up to 170,400 new recruits, nearly double its current membership of 193,000 (although some, of course, will already be members). Miliband, who aims to persuade at least 10 per cent of the current 2.7 million political levy-payers to join the party, rightly described the figure as "grounds for optimism" at his Q&A with Labour supporters in London last night. It suggests significant interest even before the party has launched a planned mass membership drive. Conversely, it remains to be seen how many will actually part with their cash when the time comes, particularly if, as seems likely, the affiliation fee is increased from its current level of £3 a year. 

Ashcroft also found that 49% of Unite members would vote Labour in a general election (compared with 23% for the Conservatives, 12% for UKIP and 7% for the Lib Dems), a higher figure than those recently cited in the media, which date from 2009 when the party was polling at its lowest level in recent history. But expect the Lib Dems and some Tories to point to the finding as evidence that union members should be given the choice to donate their political levy to other parties. To Miliband's undoubted relief, Unite members also back him over David Cameron as "the best Prime Minister", albeit by a margin of just six per cent (46-40).

Less happily for Labour, the poll shows that 46% disagree with the decision to donate nearly £12m to Labour since the 2010 election (43% agree). Unite members also oppose further large donations to the party by 49% to 39%, with 65% believing that "unions could do more to advance their members' interests by using the money elsewhere." 

While Miliband has proposed the introduction of a cap of £5,000 on all political donations, until the Tories agree to funding reform (which, in the absence of a new scandal, seems unlikely), Labour will likely again be forced to turn to the unions to fund its general election campaign. Any donations would be made through the unions' political funds, which will increase in value as fewer members pay affiliation fees to Labour. But Ashcroft's poll shows how it will be harder for Unite and other unions to continue to justify large payments to Labour when only a minority of their members choose to join the party. In addition, just 30% of members would, if given the choice, opt into the political fund (53% would not). 

It's for this reason that some in the party fear the reforms could ultimately destroy Labour's funding base and even sever the link with the unions entirely. But as Miliband showed earlier today with the announcement of a Special Conference next spring to formally endorse the changes, he has no intention of turning back.

Ashcroft also polled Unite members on various policies supported by the union's leadership, and the findings will cheer the Conservatives. He found, for instance, that 86% support the £26,000 benefit cap, that 57% oppose using strikes and civil disobedience to campaign against spending cuts, that 59% disagree with raising the top rate of tax to 75%, and that 55% want to see the 'right to buy' maintained. Only half of the union's members agree with its central stance of opposing all cuts in public spending. David Cameron should have fun with that the next time he launches one of his rhetorical sallies against Len McCluskey. 

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