Labour split as 114 MPs say 'no' to voting reform

Britain's biggest union is in talks to form an "unholy alliance" with rightwing Conservatives to oppose next year's referendum on electoral reform, The Independent has learnt.

Unite, which has more than 2 million members and is the largest funder of the Labour Party, is expected to throw its weight behind the No2AV campaign early in the New Year. It will commit funding to the campaign and mail anti-AV literature to members.

The decision raises the prospect of union officials campaigning side by side with local Tory party associations to oppose electoral reform. The move also puts Unite at odds with Labour leader Ed Miliband, who announced earlier this month that he would campaign in favour of changing the voting system.

Unite's new general secretary, Len McCluskey, is no friend of the Labour leader. He yelled "rubbish" when Mr Miliband condemned "irresponsible" industrial action in his speech to the Labour party conference. He is also unhappy at Mr Miliband's attempts to distance Labour from its union backers.

The decision to back the No campaign was delayed for the outcome of the union's leadership election. A source close to the negotiations said they expect a deal early in the New Year.

"What we are looking at is Unite pledging both financial support to the No campaign and utilising its database of members."

Unite will be joined by the GMB union in opposing electoral reform. The GMB plans to marshal its 610,000 members and "substantial" sums of money for the campaign.

However the other big union, Unison, which represents the majority of public-sector workers, is likely to abstain from taking sides in the vote. The decision by Unite and the GMB is a boost to the No camp, which yesterday revealed the names of 114 Labour MPs who have pledged their support in May's referendum. These include Hazel Blears, Jim Fitzpatrick, Keith Vaz and Margaret Hodge. In contrast around 60 Labour MPs, including most of the Shadow Cabinet, have said they will campaign for a Yes vote.

The No2Av campaign has spent considerable efforts wooing figures from the left for support and recently announced David Blunkett, John Prescott and John Reid as patrons. But critics claimed that such "beasts from the past" may not be best placed to convince a sceptical electorate.

In contrast, the Yes campaign has adopted a strategy of eschewing political backing – in part due to the unpopularity of the Liberal Democrats in government. "We are quite happy with the No campaign getting the backing of as many politicians as they want," said a source in the Yes campaign.

"This is the first time that the people will be able to say how politicians are elected and we're not too sure they will want to be told by politicians how to think."

They added there was evidence that the electorate were unlikely to engage with the issues until a few weeks before polling. Therefore the campaign, which already has nearly 40 full-time staff, was concentrating on local organisation rather than a full-blown national campaign at this stage.

Labour sources dismissed the Unite move and insisted Ed Miliband would "vigorously" campaign for a Yes vote.

"Just because Unite backed Ed to be leader does not mean that they agree on everything," one source said. "In many ways Unite is a quite Conservative union so this is not unexpected."

A spokesman for Unite said: "Unite has yet to decide its policy on AV, which it will formulate in the New Year."

The AV vote will be on 5 May, the same day as the Holyrood, Welsh Assembly and English local elections.