Brian Monteith: A union at odds with itself

Picture: Getty

Picture: Getty

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Not all union members vote Labour, and some give surprising answers to surveys, writes Brian Monteith

My mind was taken back last week to a Scottish figure who is often forgotten but deserves greater credit than has he thus far been given: Geoff Campbell MBE, a Dundonian trade unionist, a member of the AUEW/TASS union and Tory parliamentary candidate. He was instrumental in making the Conservative Trade Unionists an effective campaigning force and in particular ensuring that the trade union movement could not be presented as homogenous and entirely in thrall to the Labour Party.

It is very easy and common enough, but profoundly lazy, for the media, politicians and academics to categorise the whole British trade union membership as being of one voice in support of Labour.

Along with his CTU colleagues Campbell ensured that the moderate – and often Conservative – voice of trade union members could be heard and also gave invaluable advice to the Conservative government about how best to shape its forthcoming trade union legislation that did so much to end the scourge of industrial unrest.

Campbell and his fellow Conservative trade unionists were unsung heroes, speaking out in the most hostile of meetings, but more often than not in touch with fellow members than the union barons who claimed to represent them.

I thought of Campbell because Lord Ashcroft, that well-known Tory patron and regular purveyor of interesting polling surveys which often provide some challenging and revelations for Conservatives, had this time released his research on what Unite members really think – and like the work of Campbell’s CTU, it showed that being a union member does not mean Labour policies are accepted as gospel.

Ashcroft’s polling found that although Labour has gained nine points amongst the Unite membership, with 49 per cent now supporting the party compared with the general election of 2010, there remained a healthy 23 per cent of those surveyed still willing to vote Conservative (down five points). The Liberal Democrats had collapsed from 20 per cent to just 7 per cent and Ukip had appeared with 12 per cent.

For Conservatives, that offers some encouragement that if they can more accurately reflect the concerns of ordinary trade union members they can claim back some of that Ukip gain and eat into Labour’s lead.

Political loyalties were not the only surprise though: a staggering 86 per cent of Unite members supported Iain Duncan Smith’s benefit cap – a policy opposed by both Unite itself and the Labour Party. A majority were against policies that Unite campaigns for, such as its plan for a 75p top rate of tax and an end to council house sales (SNP, please take note).

A majority did not want to see their union make further big donations to the Labour Party, while two-fifths thought David Cameron would make the best prime minister of the three party leaders, only six points behind Ed Miliband. Nick Clegg was clearly the big loser. Not surprisingly, only three in ten said they would contribute to the union’s political fund if they were not made to automatically – a number that would most likely be smaller if members are actually asked the question in real life.

More comically, three-quarters of Unite members did not recognise their union general secretary Len McCluskey when shown a photograph of him, with some people mistaking him for former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, or ex-Conservative cabinet minister David Mellor.

Not surprisingly, Unite was quick to rubbish the polling, suggesting the survey was too small and the questions were loaded – the stock response by those who do not like the poll answers. Still, by everyday professional standards used by media outlets that have come to be uncannily accurate in political elections, Ashcroft’s poll was not out of step.

Some 15,970 adults were asked if they were members of a union and, if so, which one; then online interviews were conducted with the 712 who said they were Unite members – giving a margin of error of only 3.67 per cent. Political polls regularly have a sample of anything between 500-1,100 for the British electorate of 46.1 million, so a sample of 712 for Unite’s 1.5 million members cannot be dismissed as unreliable.

Ashcroft is no fool and simply turned the response back on Unite by asking them to make available details of its membership profile, and he would then adjust the survey to ensure it was as representative as possible. Unite is not expected to play ball.

Ashcroft’s poll will of course be of great interest to Mr Miliband, who has announced his intention to end politically-affiliated trade unions handing over an automatic levy to Labour where members are only able to opt-out by special request – by moving to a system whereby union members would consciously have to opt-in to such a fund instead. This followed the accusation levelled at Unite, strongly denied, that the union had tried to fix the selection of Labour’s Westminster candidate for Falkirk.

While Miliband might be interested in some of the poll’s information (such as more Unite members believing he did a better job of representing their interests than McCluskey) he will be embarrassed that more members thought his party was not doing a good job of representing the interests of ordinary working people, than thought it was (47 to 42 per cent).

Until an alternative survey is provided that rebuts Ashcroft’s findings, the general secretary’s critics will, with much authority, be able to say, “not in the name of Unite members”. For when McCluskey utters any more soundbites and thumps his tub at forthcoming trade union rallies – attacking the government and the Tories in particular – Ashcroft’s statistics will provide a challenging counterpoint to his claims.

No matter what McCluskey, Miliband – or David Cameron for that matter – think of Lord Ashcroft’s poll, if it has done anything it has reminded everyone what Geoff Campbell and his Conservative trade unionists were saying back in the 1980s – we are not all the same. It is something we should all remember.

• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org

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