Blair's lead boosted by 'silent majority': Independent / Newsnight poll shows 90% of union levy-payers support Labour reforms or think they should have gone further. Peter Kellner reports

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IF LABOUR'S so-called 'traditionalists' are looking to trade union members to stop Tony Blair's bandwagon, they look in vain. NOP's poll of union levy-payers, conducted on behalf of the Independent and BBC 2's Newsnight, found that not only did Mr Blair hold a comfortable lead at this early stage in the party leadership contest; more significantly, it found that few Labour-supporting union members are traditionalists. Huge majorities are convinced modernisers.

This is not the impression that all union leaders and activists convey. But they comprise only a tiny fraction of all union members. Only 1 in 10 of NOP's sample attends branch meetings regularly. Most attend seldom, if at all. It is this silent majority that has been enfranchised by Labour's new system for electing its leader. They will have a postal vote.

NOP set out to gauge the mood of this silent majority, as well as that of the more vocal minority. Our poll, conducted on Monday and Tuesday, was the first to test the views of people who will have a vote in Labour's leadership election. Previous polls have been of the general public, the vast majority of whom have no say.

NOP's figures carry a stark message to all the potential candidates. As many as 9 out of 10 levy-payers either back the reforms that Neil Kinnock and John Smith promoted inside the Labour Party (62 per cent) or think they should have gone further (26 per cent). Only 8 per cent think they went too far (Q6). And fewer than one in five among NOP's sample think the law should be changed to allow closed shops to return (Q5).

Those findings help to explain Mr Blair's popularity. In 1989 he was appointed Labour's employment spokesman. One of his first actions was to abandon the party's support for the closed shop. Some of his critics hope his record will count against him among union members. But our poll suggests the opposite: his stand as an uncompromising 'moderniser' seems to be winning him far more votes than it loses. Gordon Brown's reputation as a moderniser also seems to be helping him. He has almost as much support as John Prescott, and significantly more than Margaret Beckett and Robin Cook (Q1). Together, Mr Brown and Mr Blair outpoll the supposed traditionalists, Mr Cook and Mr Prescott, by two to one. (The figures shown in the table exclude 18 per cent who did not know whom they would support, or would not say.)

Mr Blair's lead is greater among men and white-collar union members than among women and blue-collar workers, but he is well ahead in every demographic group. There is only one small group in which he does not lead the field. Out of a total sample of 502 people, 51 activists told NOP that they attend six or more union meetings a year. Mr Brown is backed by 15 of the 51, while Mr Blair and Mr Prescott have the support of 12 each.

Mr Brown's backing among union activists has led his allies to argue that he would win more union votes than Mr Blair in a straight fight with Mr Prescott. Our figures suggest otherwise. NOP asked respondents to name their second and third choice candidates, to assess preferences if one or more potential candidates stands down, or is eliminated in the first round. When these figures are analysed, Mr Blair leads Mr Prescott in a straight fight by 62-38 per cent. Mr Brown does less well. If Mr Blair, Mr Cook and Mr Beckett are eliminated, Mr Prescott enjoys a narrow 52-48 per cent lead over Mr Brown.

One of Mr Blair's assets is that he is perceived to be Labour's best vote-winner. When levy-payers are asked 'who would be best able to persuade uncommitted voters to support Labour at the next general election', Mr Blair holds a two-to-one lead over Mr Prescott, his nearest rival (Q2). But when the same people are asked which of the five potential candidates 'holds political views closest to your own' Mr Blair and Mr Prescott vie for first place (Q3). Mr Prescott's problem is that as many as one-third of those unionists who like his policies do not want him as party leader. He seems destined to be one of those politicians who are widely liked and admired - but not necessarily considered the best person for the top job.

Apart from the issue of who should lead Labour, NOP also tested views of the party's new electoral college. Three out of four respondents like the new system, in which MPs, party members and levy-payers all have a say. Only 1 in 10 think the leader should be elected by MPs alone, while a further 15 per cent want MPs and party members, but not trade unionists, to have a vote (Q3). On the other hand, only one in three levy-payers would be offended if the whole election process was short-circuited, and only one candidate emerged.

NOP interviewed 502 trade unionists who belong to unions affiliated to the Labour Party and who say they are 'certain' or 'likely' to vote in the coming leadership election. NOP obtained its sample by recontacting 1,259 union members it had polled face-to- face in random nation-wide surveys at 540 sampling points throughout Britain. Of this total, 443 belonged to non-affiliated unions, while a further 314 belonged to affiliated unions but did not pay the political levy or said they were unlikely to vote.

----------------------------------------------------------------- POLL OF LEVY-PAYING TRADE UNIONISTS ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1. Which of these MPs would you most like to see leading the Labour Party? All White Blue- % collar collar % % Tony Blair 37 43 34 John Prescott 22 19 24 Gordon Brown 21 20 22 Margaret Beckett 12 12 12 Robin Cook 7 6 8 2 a) Which of the five MPs hold political opinions closest to your own? b) And which of the five do you think would be best able to persuade uncommitted voters to support Labour at the next general election? Closest to Best able own opinions to win votes Tony Blair 22 32 Gordon Brown 14 14 John Prescott 21 17 Margaret Beckett 11 15 Robin Cook 5 5 None/don't know 27 18 3. The election will be decided by three groups - MPs, individual Labour Party members, and trade unionists like you who support the Labour Party. Who do you think SHOULD elect the party leader: All White- Blue- % collar collar % % Only Members of Parliament 9 11 9 Members of Parliament and individual party members 14 19 11 Or MPs, party members and trade unionists 75 68 78 Don't know 2 2 2 4. Some people have suggested that the party should unite round a single candidate. Other people want a range of candidates so that the party has a real choice. Would it be a good thing for one candidate to be elected unopposed, or would it be a bad thing, or would you not mind either way? Good thing 22 27 19 Bad thing 30 32 28 Don't mind 48 40 52 5. During the past 10 years, first Neil Kinnock and then John Smith promoted a number of changes in the Labour Party. On balance, would you say those changes . . . Went too far 8 6 9 Did not go far enough 26 23 28 Were about right 62 68 59 Don't know 4 3 5 6. Thinking about the recent law that allows workers to decide whether or not to join a union, rather than be required to join a union as part of a 'closed shop' arrangement: do you think a future Labour government should keep that law, or scrap it and allow closed shops to return? Keep the law 78 81 77 Scrap the law 19 15 21 Don't know 3 4 2 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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