Trade unionists, like dark matter: just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it isn't there. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Will the trade unions pick the next Labour leader after all?

The small numbers of trade unionists signing up to vote in the Labour leadership election has some smelling a stitch-up. The reality is more mundane.

Will the trade unions pick the next Labour leader after all? On paper, it doesn't look likely: Labour's latest membership figures show just 3,788 sign-ups from what used to be the affiliates section, making just 1.5 per cent of the electorate compared to a third under the old system. 

In the old days, members of affiliated trade unions, and disparate groups like the Fabian Society and Labour Friends of the Earth, were automatically enrolled in the third section of the electoral college. Now they have to “opt-in”. To expedite this process, Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, has recruited a call centre to sign up as many members as possible. So far, if Labour’s official numbers are to be believed, it isn’t working.

But what if Labour's official numbers only tell half the story? Rumours have reached George that the biggest trade unions, Unite and the GMB, are delaying registering supporters in order to give their favoured candidates preferential access. A trickle of affiliate supporters now will become a flood in the final days of the campaign.  As George writes:

Sources suggest a simple explanation for the relatively low union figure: the unions are holding back details of many of those who have registered. The motive, they suggest, is to ensure that only preferred candidates in the leadership, deputy leadership and London mayoral contests have access to their members. Some predict that as many as 100,000 will have been affiliated by 12 August.”

Are the rumours true? Any trade union that did so would be operating well within the rules – they can keep their supporters firmly to themselves until the end of July, giving out contact details to their chosen candidates, while giving Labour headquarters – and the rest of the field – just 11 days to contact them.  

Is that why the numbers of affliate sign-ups are "so low". “Well, it’s possible,” says one MP, “Possible, but I wouldn’t have thought probable.” Why not?

Well, firstly, it’s important to understand that far from being a small number, 3,788 is a fairly impressive number of people to have signed up.

Remember that the upper limit for sign-ups is not the many millions of people who are members of affiliated trade unions, but the close to 200,000 people who voted in the affiliates section last time around. As one Labour insider notes “If you didn’t vote last time, when the ballot paper was sent to you, when you had a good chance of picking the next Prime Minister, why on earth would you opt-in now?”

When pollsters do a telephone survey, the average industry response is five per cent. Charity fundraisers, speaking anonymously to the New Statesman, confirm that their telephone campaigns wouldn’t expect to get above ten per cent, even with poster and social media campaigns running concurrently.

To make matters worse, while Unite, as the largest trade  union in Britain, will make up a sizable chunk of that 200,000, many, perhaps even a majority, of those affiliates who might join, aren’t members of Unite. None of the other trade unions are running campaigns of equivalent scale – a few have restricted themselves to a handful of e-mails.

And don’t forget that the real number of potential sign-ups is lower than 200,000. Many of those 200,000 votes were cast by the same people. A black lawyer, represented by Unite in her workplace, could have voted three times: as a member of Black and Ethnic Minority Labour, a Unite trade unionist, and as part of the Society of Labour Lawyers.

So, in practice, Unite is fishing around in a pool of perhaps 100,000 voters. We know that, whether it’s the sharing of personal data or organ donation, when you move from an opt-out system to an opt-in one, the number of sign-ups goes down, usually by a significant margin. (Studies of opt-in and opt-out organ donation systems find that 95 per cent of people tend to stick with the default option)

“Secret trade unionists waiting to change the balance of the Labour leadership election” is a more exciting story than a largely colourless contest. Just because it’s more exciting, however, doesn’t make it any more likely.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era