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.

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?