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.
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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.

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.

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.