Three myths about the popularity and relevance of trade unions and Labour

2:24 pm - July 1st 2013

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by Neil Foster

From time to time certain politicians and journalists question the link between trade unions and the Labour Party. The core arguments typically centre on a mixture of three core assertions and are used to question the validity, legitimacy or relevance of the trade union role in the Labour Party.

But recent polling and statistics does not support these arguments in many cases.

Myth: unions are in decline
First, according to official figures, union membership has increased by 59,000 during 2012. Private sector membership of trade unions is up for the second year in a row. 6.5 million people in the UK are currently members of a trade union.

According to House of Commons statistics this is 33 times the number of people who are member of the Labour Party and 16 times the combined membership of the three largest political parties in the UK. The National Trust is the largest voluntary organisation in Europe with 4 million members, yet this figure amounts to only two-thirds of those in trade unions in the UK.

Myth: unions are not supported beyond their own membership
According to Ipsos MORI, trade union officers are trusted to tell the truth by 41% of voters, not trusted by 47% and with 13% saying they don’t know. At first glance these do not appear to particularly striking results, until you compare it to others, such as business leaders, many of whom are assiduously courted by political parties. The same poll shows that only 34% trust business leaders to tell the truth, 57% do not trust them and 9% don’t know.

In fact Ipsos MORI has found unions more trusted than business leaders every single year it has polled since 1999. Politicians are even less trusted, with only 18% telling Ipsos MORI that they trust them to tell the trust, 77% don’t trust them and 4% don’t know.

Myth: Labour must distance itself from unions to secure electoral success
In fact, a majority of the public remain supportive of the links between Labour and trade unions. 69% of Britons agreed with the statement ‘it is important that Labour retains its strong links with the Trade Unions because they represent many hard working people in Britain’. Only 28% disagreed and 3% didn’t know.

The poll revealed that 90% of Labour voters said it was important that the Labour party retained its strong links with unions. This was view shared by 67% of Liberal Democrats and even by 53% of Conservatives. 69% of voters in the South East also felt it was important Labour kept its link with the trade unions. Same for 87% of 18-24 year olds.

All these figures suggest the trade unions are in better shape than their critics admit. The next time journalists (trusted by only 21% to tell the truth) or Westminster politicians (trusted by only 17%) decide to challenge or dismiss trade unions, they should reflect on public opinion first.

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Reader comments

I think this article is missing the ponit rather:

People have questions regarding the control unions exert over the Labour party given that 80% or so of Labour’s funding comes directly from union coffers. They ahve questions regarding the fact that the unions only fund Labour, and give their members no choice over which political party to donate to, and lastly have serious questions regarding how much taxpayer money is given to unions, allowing them either directly or indirectly to fund the Labour party.

I think you mean “less distrusted”.

But go ahead. Let McCluskey rule the roost.
I’m sure Dave will be delighted.


Labour is the political wing of the trade unions. The clue is in the name.

4. Man on Clapham Omnibus

The Union is the man.
Labour is the rope

5. John Reid

It’s not labour should distance themselves from unions, it’s they shouldn’t appear to have union bosses demand what the Lapbur leader should do,

6. Man on Clapham Omnibus

5. John Reid

best not to speak to them then!

7. Paul peter Smith

If the unions have so much control over the Labour party how come none of Thatchers handywork was undone after more than a decade of Labour government. How come Tony Blair fought hard to exempt us from the human rights for workers charter whilst insisting we sign up for the human rights for dickheads charter. How come the wealth gap increased massively as new Labour pandered to financial interests? It must have been all the influence the unions had!

8. John Reid

The unions didn’t have much control over labour during the Blair ears, the only 3 elections where most of the money came from elsewhere, also the only 3 times we’ve ever won on the trot, it’s now that Ed’s in charge that he’s not instated in individual members d oing fundraising or getting the write gifts,or a co-ops funding us, but unions, that he’s got these union bosses insisting on their members becoming M.P.s and dictating policy

Funny thing is, as we’re only 4% ahead in the polls, the unions won’t ever accept its them ,making Ed miliband too scared to criticise his union masters when they try to oust progress magazine, is the sort of action that puts the public off,

Yet the union barons keep saying, it’s the Blairites fault, why we’re not higher in the opinion polls not them,

“Labour must distance itself from unions to secure electoral success”

Let me straighten that out for you:

“Unions must distance themselves from Labour to have any chance of effectively doing what they’re supposed to be there for”

As a member of a large union which disaffiliated from Labour during the Blair/Brown period due to their régime’s attack on public-sector workers, I marvel at the stupidity (or is it cupidity?) of the leaders of those unions which – despite the treacherous and cowardly behaviour of the Party – insist on maintaining or even augmenting the link between them.

Myth: unions are in decline
First, according to official figures, union membership has increased by 59,000 during 2012. Private sector membership of trade unions is up for the second year in a row. 6.5 million people in the UK are currently members of a trade union.

Funny thing is, is that this can be explained by rational self interest. With the Tories assault on worker’s rights, it’s only natural that workers would assess their position and conclude that it might be best to sign up to a union, if only to gain access to the union’s legal team, just in case the unthinkable happens.

The unions founded the labour party, its career politicians that have screwed it up.

12. Shatterface

The unions should be distancing themselves from Labour not the other way around.

There’s fuck all difference between the three main parties. If Labour are heading for the next election matching the Tories cut for cut the unions should be telling Labour to go begging to their real bosses.

13. John Reid

11john, Labours worse result was in 1983under Michael foot, I’d hardly call him a career politican

14. Paul peter Smith

@8 John Reid
That explains a lot i.e. The most shameful episode in the history of the labour movement, one characterised by crony capitalism and imperial aggression, coincided with a decline in union influence.

15. Dissident

I’m a member of 2 unions. Reason I joined? It’s an insurance policy. One is on back burner though as currently not necessary for me (andsubs 22p a month). the other £10. The corporation I work for recognises that too, and the union negotiates on my behalf in pay talks etc, and my pay and conditions are better than in many other companies for the same kind of job. It’s a no brainer really…

And just a tenner for peace of mind? What else would I spend that on, 3 pints down my local?

16. John Reid

14 yes and the only time labour actually got more than 40% of the vote since 1966

17. Paul peter Smith

Its quite disturbing that both Thatcher and Blair ( the two ‘regimes’ that most resemble Mussolini’s definition of Facism) were elected with some of their parties biggest majorities. As a wise man once said ‘ people get the government they deserve’.

18. Dissident

@ 17
“It woz the sun wot won it”
Sound familiar?

“It is important that Labour retains its strong links with the Trade Unions because they represent many hard working people in Britain”.

That’s a very leading polling question and hardly surprising that there is a large majority in support of that view. I’d be more interested in the result if the question: “Is it important that Labour retains its strong links with the Trade Unions” was asked.

20. Paul peter Smith

@19 Danny
It certainly is a leading question, but then isn’t the whole purpose of polling to ask leading questions to selected respondants and then perform mathmatical gymnastics to make a samples size of 136 people representative of a population approaching 70 million nationally ( let alone 7 billion globally).

21. mylastpostwaseliminated

@ post 17

Thatcher BRIBED the electorate with Billions selling off Utilities and Blowing all the oil and Gas revenues for Political gain and (false) popularity amongst the Tory classes and nouveau Tory voting riche – (bought social housing chEEp, carpet baggers etc).
She was an uber con-merchant.

Blair was “Son of Thatcher”
He used to sneak her in by the back door of No10 to take his latest orders from her!

Hence “New Labour” – another con on the ignorant public voters (what’s left of them)

22. Planeshift

“that Labour retains its strong links with the Trade Unions because they represent many hard working people in Britain”

I suspect this is more a view that the labour party needs to have links with people who have worked in real jobs, and would apply to all parties.

@ post 21

” (false) popularity amongst the Tory classes and nouveau Tory voting riche – (bought social housing cheep”

That “nouveau Tory voting riche” was largely comprised of working class people living in council houses who were given the opportunity to buy their own homes. They liked the message that having worked hard they didn’t have to “know their own place” but instead could own their own place.

From Owen Jones’ recent R4 discussion with Zadie Smith it sounds like the real problem is that many on the left don’t really like social mobility, seeing it as selfish.

The oddity is that union membership is also selfish in that its main benefit for members is in providing them with a stronger voice at work so they can get better pay and conditions. In the 70s that selfishness was manifest in that union pay demands and sympathy actions helped to bring the economy to its knees. Today, unions have lost that power and are so not anti-social in the way they were. The risk of Labour getting too close to the Unions is the risk that the Unions could be handed back the power to wreck things in the way that they did before. Fortunately for Labour, not so many people remember the 1970s and support the Unions in their emasculated modern guise.

24. Paul peter Smith

@ 23
‘ working class people living in council houses were given the chance to buy their own homes…’
But that was the central deception, they were not buying ‘their’ homes they were buying the nations social housing stock. Something the conservatives exacerbated buy prohibiting councils from using monies raised to replace said stock. Thus neatly setting up the housing bubble and buy to let free for all which places even greater strain on the lower

25. Paul peter Smith

rungs of the housing ladder. This combined with the woeful supply of new social housing means that not only will those lucky buyers grandchildren probably never own a house, they probably wont have the option of quality social housing either.

26. paul barker

Well, Union membership has gone up a bit in the last couple of years, at a time when the workforce has been rising rapidly.
But, its half what it was at the peak in 1979, at a time when the workforce was much smaller.
Its a waste of time asking if Labour & The Unions should be tied together since there is nothing you can do about it from the Labour side.

27. Paul peter Smith

As other posts have pointed out, in todays workplaces union membership is more a hedge against the cost of litigation than it is a political statement.

28. mylastpostwaseliminated

@ post 23

Nah – thats wot the elites want you to think!
What it did is put more money into CITY Bankers/Financials hands, the mortgage,compulsory house insurance, life insurance etc etc
– after the Social Housing sell off had already been paid for dozens of times over by previous social tennants.
Bankers also take a huge cut from the money they get off the investor markets for mortgages!
It was done to fill THE CITY with uber-greedy “loads of money – show us yer wad” boys/banker elites!

Knowing the social housing sell off meant no future housing for the poor’s kids (cos they ‘privatised it with PFi ‘trust’ housing projects and deliberatly created a shortage by banning councils from using the revenues of council-house sell-offs to build new ones)

That brings us to today
– where uber greedy landlords take bigger and bigger whack out of people’s pay packets (also subsidised by Govt rent-rebates to keep a roof over their heads)

House prices are deliberatly kept high to keep rents high. Loads of Politicians have Buy to let portfolio’s and corruptly manipulate our house prices.

The other EXTORTION the bankers get up to is making EXPONENTIAL gains in interest take!
“The higher the amount borrowed plus the longer the loan term,they get EXPONENTIAL rise in Interest revenues”

The public really need to get their head around this – cos that’s why so many have no money left at end of month and high house prices ONLY benefit greedy, conning BANKERS and their backers!

Borrowing over 2-3 times joint salary is utter, brainwashed lunacy.

29. Dissident

“Borrowing over 2-3 times joint salary is utter, brainwashed lunacy.”

True, they want multi-generational mortgages now, so it is lunacy to only have borrowing of only 2-3 times joint salary. For us plebs it should actually be 10-20 times, especially with the exponential increase in revenue generated. The fact that it reintroduces feudalism on the sly is of course a happy accident…

I agree with Danny about that question being very leading. I’m a trade union member – active, on branch committee – and also a Labour Party member. There’s some middle ground between thinking the LP should have to distance itself from unions and thinking what has happened in Falkirk is perfectly fine.

Some interesting data – for which thank you – but I’m not quite sure what the purpose of this piece is. If your aims are more ambitious than merely preaching to the choir, don’t you need a more nuanced response to the third ‘myth’? As Tyler has pointed out, the (sensible) debate isn’t really about whether Labour should sever all ties to the unions but about the degree of influence unions should have over Labour policy and candidate selections. No one can sensibly hold the view that the Falkirk episode is good for the party’s electoral prospects; it’s axiomatic that a party too tightly controlled by the unions will be unattractive to the centre ground. So what does the data say about – what do you say is – the ‘right’ relationship between Labour and the unions?

32. Foregone Conclusion

‘It is important that Labour retains its strong links with the Trade Unions because they represent many hard working people in Britain.’

This is what’s called a loaded question. What would be the result here if we asked the same question again, with the final clause knocked off? I honestly don’t know, but I suspect it’d be less.

Agreed that his is a very leading opinion poll question. Compare it to a question –

‘Should Labour end special privileges for powerful trade unions?’

– could get 69% as well.

Otherwise, a good article, but it’s not fair to say support is 69% based on that wording.

Bobbys ludicrous weighted and biased question is absurd whereas the question that provided the high support for unions is balanced and clear.

Typical of the right to ask misleading questions to try and get the answer they want.

Its the same with welfare questions.If polls were done on any aspect of welfare reform coalition policies but all those polled were given the full and
correct facts re welfare not a single poll would be in favour of any of the reforms

Turkeys wouldnt vote for christmas and millions of ordinary people wouldnt support in polls policies that could only adversely affect the 60 or 70 percent of people including them who could become sick or lose their job at any time.

The right can never win on facts as the facts of history prove their ideology wrong on every issue.

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