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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The SNP thinks it knows how to kill hard Brexit

The Supreme Court ruled MPs must have a say in triggering Article 50. But the opposition must unite to succeed. 

For a few minutes on Tuesday morning, the crowd in the Supreme Court listened as the verdict was read out. Parliament must have the right to authorise the triggering of Article 50. The devolved nations would not get a veto. 

There was a moment of silence. And then the opponents of hard Brexit hit the phones. 

For the Scottish government, the pro-Remain members of the Welsh Assembly and Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, the victory was bittersweet. 

The ruling prompted Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to ask: “Is it better that we take our future into our own hands?”

Ever the pragmatist, though, Sturgeon has simultaneously released her Westminster attack dogs. 

Within minutes of the ruling, the SNP had vowed to put forward 50 amendments (see what they did there) to UK government legislation before Article 50 is enacted. 

This includes the demand for a Brexit white paper – shared by MPs from all parties – to a clause designed to prevent the UK reverting to World Trade Organisation rules if a deal is not agreed. 

But with Labour planning to approve the triggering of Article 50, can the SNP cause havoc with the government’s plans, or will it simply be a chorus of disapproval in the rest of Parliament’s ear?

The SNP can expect some support. Individual SNP MPs have already successfully worked with Labour MPs on issues such as benefit cuts. Pro-Remain Labour backbenchers opposed to Article 50 will not rule out “holding hands with the devil to cross the bridge”, as one insider put it. The sole Green MP, Caroline Lucas, will consider backing SNP amendments she agrees with as well as tabling her own. 

But meanwhile, other opposition parties are seeking their own amendments. Jeremy Corbyn said Labour will seek amendments to stop the Conservatives turning the UK “into a bargain basement tax haven” and is demanding tariff-free access to the EU. 

Separately, the Liberal Democrats are seeking three main amendments – single market membership, rights for EU nationals and a referendum on the deal, which is a “red line”.

Meanwhile, pro-Remain Tory backbenchers are watching their leadership closely to decide how far to stray from the party line. 

But if the Article 50 ruling has woken Parliament up, the initial reaction has been chaotic rather than collaborative. Despite the Lib Dems’ position as the most UK-wide anti-Brexit voice, neither the SNP nor Labour managed to co-ordinate with them. 

Indeed, the Lib Dems look set to vote against Labour’s tariff-free amendment on the grounds it is not good enough, while expecting Labour to vote against their demand of membership of the single market. 

The question for all opposition parties is whether they can find enough amendments to agree on to force the government onto the defensive. Otherwise, this defeat for the government is hardly a defeat at all. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.