Len is right – Unite members are not queuing up to join Labour


Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite union, told the Guardian last week that his members were “not queuing up to join the Labour Party”. This is quite a mild remark for a man not usually given to understatement. He added that he could not justify signing up a million of his members to Labour when a large chunk of them do not support the party.

A poll of Unite members I conducted last week shows his crisis of conscience (if that is what it is) to be well founded. The sample size was 712, giving a margin of error of 3.67% – only  fractionally more than for many nationally representative polls.

Just under half (49%) of Unite members said they would vote Labour in an election tomorrow; 23% would vote Tory. Four in ten thought David Cameron would make the best Prime Minister of the three leaders, putting him just 6 points behind Ed Miliband. Only 42% said the Labour Party was doing a good job of representing the interests of ordinary working people in Britain, while 47% said it was not.

That being the case, it is no surprise that barely one in eight Unite members said they would pay to join Labour as an individual member if contributors to the union’s political fund were no longer automatically signed up as affiliates. Three quarters said they would not do so.

Three in ten said they had opted out of contributing to the union’s political fund. Tellingly, one third said they didn’t know whether they had opted out or not. Given the current laborious process for doing so, which they would almost certainly remember completing, this probably means they contribute despite having made no conscious decision to do so.

Accordingly, most Unite members (57%) said the rules should be changed so members would be asked if they wanted some of their membership fee to go towards the fund, rather than having to opt out if they did not want this to happen. Less than a third (31%) supported the current opt-out system. Were this change to come about, only 30% of Unite members said they would opt in to the union’s political fund. Most (53%) said they would not, with 17% undecided.

Unite’s political fund, or what is left of it once members are asked whether or not they want to contribute to it, could in theory be used to make large one-off donations to Labour which would help to offset what the party had lost in affiliation fees. In practice, given the new drive for glasnost and perestroika in the relationship between union and party, Unite would need to reflect on whether this represented the will of its members.

My poll found them sharply divided as to whether the union was right to donate £12 million to Labour since the last election: 46% said they disagreed with the decision, with 43% in favour. Only 39% said they would support further large donations in future, with 49% opposed.

Only just over a third (35%) of Unite members – including only two thirds of those who said they would vote for the party in an election tomorrow – agreed that donating to Labour “is a good way for unions to advance the interests of their members”. Nearly two thirds thought “unions could do more to advance their members’ interests by using the money elsewhere”.

Even so, nearly a quarter of Unite members thought Ed Miliband did a better job of representing them and the things they cared about than Len McCluskey; only 16% thought the reverse. More than six in ten, though, thought “neither of them really represents me and the things I care about”.

Dishearteningly for the Unite leader, only a quarter of his members recognised a picture of him, and only 16% could put the right name to it. I don’t suppose he will mind too much that some mistook him for Sir Alex Ferguson; whether he will be less happy about being confused with David Mellor or Derek Simpson, the union’s former Joint General Secretary, we can only speculate.

McCluskey rightly observes that whether individual trade unionists will rally to Labour will depend on whether Miliband gives them “reasons to want to be associated” with the party. This is largely about policy. But the policies he himself advocates seem unlikely to have the desired effect.

The Unite leader has been a fierce opponent of the government’s welfare reforms. Yet 86% of the union’s members agreed that “it is right to introduce a ‘benefit cap’ so no household can claim more than £26,000 a year in benefits”. The Unite membership was evenly divided over his blanket opposition to austerity, with only 50% agreeing with the union that it is “wrong for the government to make any cuts in public spending”. A clear majority (57%) disagreed with the call for unions to employ strikes and civil disobedience in an anti-austerity campaign, which is set out in Winning Together, Unite’s current policy document.

Unite’s policies also include ending council tenants’ right to buy (opposed by 55% of members), raising the top rate of income tax to 75p (opposed by 59%), making it compulsory for local councils to provide more gypsy and traveller sites (opposed by 71%) and reducing the voting age to 16 (opposed by 72%). Two thirds agreed with nationalising the utilities, transport and banking, but these seem unlikely to feature even in Red Ed’s manifesto.

Len McCluskey is quite right that his members are not queuing up to join Labour. And if Miliband takes his advice, nor will they.