5 December 2022

Are the trade unions holding Labour back? Here’s what the public think…

By Ollie Rackham

Are the trade unions holding back the Labour Party? Are they improving its image, bringing people together, showing everyone what Lab’s really about? Or are they taking it in a direction that it doesn’t really want to be going in? 

Though much of the media coverage focuses on strikes, it’s important to remember the important broader role unions play. Having spent time working at the Centre for Social Justice, an organisation committed to putting social justice at the heart of British politics, I’ve spent time with those who really need them. Those who are – if they’re lucky – in low-paid, poorly-protected, jobs, who have little recourse if something goes wrong – which it often does.

At the same time, Labour’s historic closeness to those same organisations can be problematic if they are perceived to be in hock to union interests at the expense of the wider public. That’s why Keir Starmer has trodden such a careful line on the impending strikes. His response when asked about rail strikes today that he is ‘not going to start saying which side is right, which side is wrong’ epitomises that sense of caution.

That caution also reflects a nervousness within the party, certainly among those I have spoken to, that a general election victory is not nearly as nailed on as their current huge poll leads might suggests. There are still policy positions to be fleshed out and the minefield of public opinion to be negotiated on issues where the party has historically had big problems – Brexit and immigration spring to mind.

Some of that nervousness stems from the deeply ingrained folk memory of the 1992 election, when much of the country thought Neil Kinnock was nailed on to become Labour’s first Prime Minister for 13 years, only to see defeat snatched from the jaws of victory thanks to the now famous ‘shy Tory’ vote. Granted, 2022 is not 1992, and the polling lead is far bigger, but that sense of trepidation is hard to shake off – especially after so long out of power.

It is in that context, then, that my firm Millbank Communications has been asking voters an important question: does the trade union movement, with its very public commitment to crippling strikes this winter, risk ‘holding back’ Labour’s advance, and potentially costing it seats at the next general election?

Our survey, conducted by DeltaPoll, asked voters the following question:

Some people think that the trade unions are holding back the Labour Party from winning a General Election because it might feel obliged to make policy or decisions in support of union interests, given that some trade unions fund the party. Others don’t think unions hold Labour back as they see Labour and trade unions as natural partners who can work together in support of working class interests by introducing progressive policies…

Do you think that Trade Unions are or are not currently holding back the Labour Party from winning a General Election?

This might just be one issue, but the results offer some fascinating insights into the different tribes of contemporary British politics.

In particular, there is a pronounced Brexit split among Labour voters. Nearly half (47%) of those who voted Remain and Labour in 2019 think the unions are not holding the party back, but the same is true for just 22% of Leave/Labour voters. There are also interesting geographical distinctions. Some 25% more voters in the now largely deindustrialised Midlands see the unions as a negative for Labour than their counterparts in London

Perhaps most surprisingly, younger voters are among the most sceptical about the effect of union action on Labour’s fortunes: 41% of voters aged 18-24 agreed the unions were holding back Labour, against 22% who said they were not. Go slightly up the age range, however, and things reverse: among 25-34 year-olds, 42% are pro-union and 31% not. We can hazard a guess about this cleavage – perhaps it reflects students cheesed off about the prospect of their Christmas journeys home being cancelled by strike action? Or perhaps their studies interrupted by industrial action from university staff?

Less surprisingly, 2019 Tory voters are nearly twice as likely than Labour ones to take the anti-union view.

About an equal number of the ABC1ers and the C2DErs answering the survey said that they disagreed – Labour not held back. 30% and 33% of respondents, respectively. And a third more people in full-time employment said ‘no, they’re not being held back…’, than did those out of work.

Of course, as well as the many yes/no responses, about a third of respondents ticked the ‘don’t know’ box, suggesting this isn’t an issue they’ve given much thought. I suspect that may change once the month of widespread, potentially very disruptive strike action starts having a real impact on people’s lives. At the same time, some may not be particularly aware of the relationship between Labour and the unions, or see it as a side note in the broader story of a flailing government. As we head into what looks likely to be an extremely challenging Christmas period, Millbank will be commissioning more polling to try and tease out some of the nuances of public opinion on these issues.

What our first round of polling suggests, though, is that you can’t take voters’ views for granted. Younger people, often perceived to be strongly leftwing, appear much more sceptical about the unions’ role than you might imagine. Likewise, those living in former industrial heartlands seem less pro-union than people in the big cities. Less surprising, perhaps, is the stark divide between liberal Remainers and Conservative Brexiteers.

Either way, our survey suggests the unions themselves have work to do to win over hearts and minds, particularly with the spectre of industrial action in the weeks ahead. Whether that’s expanding their role into the gig economy, offering more services for the self-employed, the movement must adapt to a different era, one in which working practices have changed profoundly.

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Ollie Rackham is Director of Millbank Communications. He currently works for Lexington and previously worked on the policy team at The Centre for Social Justice.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.