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.
Show Hide image

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.

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. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

How Devon's humpback whale is dredging up the politics of the sea

The arrival of a humpback whale at Slapton Sands has caused a local splash. But the history of the village has a warning for those who think of the sea as spectacle alone.

The Devon coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross is as pretty as it is treacherous. After winding through a cliff-top village, the road ahead falls away to reveal a giant lake – the Slapton Ley - flanked by green hills on one side and ocean on the other. 

Tourists (or "grockles") gasp at the view and, in recent weeks, even locals have been staring out to sea - where a giant humpback whale has taken up residence in the bay.

Not seen at Slapton in living memory, the whale has swum into rural stardom. Hundreds have lined the beach with cameras and telescopes. The nearby pub and farm shop have seen levels of trade only usually enjoyed in the summer.

According to Keith Pugh, (the ice-cream-van-man who has been keeping the crowds supplied with tea) one lady from Plymouth caught the bus here every day for six weeks just to catch a single glimpse. That’s a four-hour round trip.

If this all sounds a bit fishy, that's because it is. Experts believe that the whale is feeding on the bumper numbers of small fish and mackerel that have been reported in the area. But even these are behaving in unexpected ways. “The mackerel are further north than usual for this time of year,” says Mark Darlaston, a photographer who first identified the whale as a humpback (and jokingly named it after storm “Doris”).

So what is the humpback up to, so far south of its northern feeding grounds? And should its presence be seen as a sign of recovery - for whales and UK waters in general? 

Not yet, say conservationists. And not if the history of Slapton is anything to go by.

Troubled waters

Villagers at Torcross, at the far end of Slapton sands, are familiar with secrets from the deep. In 1944, a military training in the bay went horribly wrong, when nearly 1,000 American servicemen were drowned. The tragedy was hushed up for decades.

But the greatest threat to the community comes from mismanagement of the sea itself. On 26 January 1917 the entire neighbouring village of Hallsands was swallowed by a storm. The tragedy was partially manmade. The underwater sandbanks, which had helped protect the shore from longshore drift, had been thoughtlessly dredged to supply building materials for the Plymouth docks. Some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed and never replaced.

The results of that plunder are still felt at Slapton today. In 2014, a gale-force storm swept away part of the road that runs between the sea and the ley. Just last year, the seawall at Torcross crumbled, as the protective beach beneath was carried away by waves.

Into the Brexit deeps

So much in our oceans is tightly connected to human activity. If whales are a rare sight on the UK coast, it is partly because of the human campaign against them for many years in the form of whaling. According to Sally Hamilton from the conservation charity Orca, the 1980s moratorium on whaling has helped some populations to recover. 

But others are still fighting to survive in the face of pollution, noise, and over-fishing. The UK’s last resident pod of killer whales looks likely to die out after high levels of PCB chemicals have stopped the females reproducing. In Norway, a stranded whale was found to have over 30 plastic bags blocking its digestive system.

There is also no certainty that the glut of fish that the whale is feeding on will come again next year. “There is still masses we don’t understand about the ocean,” says Will McCallum from Greenpeace, “Climate change and the threat of over-fishing mean that where fish are moving to is more unpredictable that it has ever been.”

And it's not just whales that could get caught out. Some UK politicians have demanded that a Brexit deal include blocking foreign vessels from fishing in British waters. With 58 per cent of UK-caught fish caught by non-British fleets, it is argued that a ban would benefit the UK industry.

Yet with migration patterns becoming more erratic, McCallum is sceptical. "Re-territorialising our waters would be an absolute potential disaster because we just don’t know where fish stocks are going to move," he says. 

Out of the Blues

At Torcross, the sea has long been a source of worry. Claire, the landlady at the Start Bay Inn, recalls the many storms that have pelted the seafront pub since she was a child. Just last year she was “running from one end to the other” trying to sweep the water out, while bottles rattled and the chip-fryer shook.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that news of the whale’s arrival first met with local concern. “I can’t bear to see it,” one woman tells me. She had read in the press that it had come so close in to shore to “beach” itself and die, and heard rumours it was in mourning for a lost calf.

But thanks to the investigations of Mark Darlaston and the divers at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, such fake whale-news has been corrected - and its visits are fast becoming a source of wider hope. The owner of the Stokely farmshop has joked about replacing it with a decoy “nessie” when it leaves. Claire cannot wait to put its picture on the front of her menus (where the picture is currently of the recent storm).

It is not yet known what lies ahead for Brexit fishing policy, or for whales. But dip into the history of the village of Torcross, and it's clear that understanding and protecting the sea is inseparable from protecting ourselves.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.