Trade unionists, like dark matter: just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it isn't there. Photo: Getty Images
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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 domestic and global politics.

Photo: Getty
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Hyper-partisan Corbynite websites show how the left can beat the tabloids online

If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Despite their best efforts during the election campaign, the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express failed to convince voters to give Theresa May a majority, let alone the landslide she craved. Instead, Labour made inroads thanks partly to increased turnout among younger voters who prefer to get their news online and from social networks.

The centre of power in the media has been shifting to the web for years, but during the election we saw just how well a crop of hyper-partisan left-wing news sites are using social media to gain the kind of influence once restricted to the tabloid press.

Writers for sites such as the Canary or Evolve Politics see themselves as activists as much as journalists. That frees them to spin news stories in a way that is highly attuned to the dynamics of social media, provoking strong emotions and allowing them to address their audience like a friend down the pub “telling it how it really is”.

People on Facebook or Twitter use news to tell their friends and the wider world who they are and what they believe in. Sharing the Canary story “Theresa May is trying to override parliamentary democracy to cling to power. But no one’s fooled” is a far more effective signal that you don’t like the Tory government than posting a dry headline about the cancellation of the 2018 Queen’s Speech.

This has long-term implications for the right’s ability to get its message out. Research by BuzzFeed has found that pro-Conservative stories were barely shared during the election campaign. It appears the “shy Tory” factor that skewed opinion polling in previous elections lives on, influencing what people are prepared to post online. If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Distorted reality

Television was once the press’s greatest enemy. But its “newspaper reviews” now offer print titles a safe space in which they are treated with a level of respect out of all proportion to their shrinking readership. Surely this must change soon? After all, the Independent sometimes gets a slot (despite having ceased print publication last year) for its digital front page. How is it fair to exclude BuzzFeed News – an organisation that invests in reporting and investigations – and include the Daily Express, with its less-than-prescient weather predictions?

Another problem became apparent during the election. Because the press is so dominated by the right, coverage from the supposedly impartial broadcasters was skewed, as presenters and guests parroted headlines and front-page stories from partisan newspapers. Already, some political programmes, such as BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, have experimented with including news from outside Fleet Street. One of the newspaper industry’s most reliable allies is looking for new friends.

Alternative facts

The rise of sites spreading the left-wing gospel across Facebook may be good for Labour but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the public. This was illustrated on 16 June in a post by a relatively new entrant called the Skwawkbox, which claimed that a government “D-notice” – now called a DSMA-notice – might be in place restricting news organisations from reporting on the number of casualties from the Grenfell Tower fire.

The claim was untrue and eventually an update was added to the post, but not before it was widely shared. The man behind the blog (who gives his name in interviews only as “Steve”) insisted that because he had included a couple of caveats, including the word “if” in the text of his article, he was justified in spreading an unsubstantiated rumour. Replacing an irresponsible right-wing tabloid culture in print with equally negligent left-wing news sites online doesn’t feel much like progress.

Blood and bias

Narratives about the corrupt, lying mainstream media (the “MSM” for short) have become more prevalent during the election, and it’s clear they often hit a nerve.

On 17 June, a protest over Theresa May’s deal with the DUP and the Grenfell Tower fire made its way past BBC Broadcasting House, where a small group stopped to chant: “Blood, blood, blood on your hands!” Hours later, in the shadow of the burned-out tower, I heard a young woman complain loudly to her friends about money being used to fly BBC news helicopters when it could have gone to displaced victims.

The BBC cites the accusations of bias it receives from both ends of the political spectrum as evidence that it is resolutely centrist. But while many of its greatest critics would miss the BBC if it goes, the corporation could do a better job of convincing people why it’s worth keeping around.

Grenfell grievances

Early reports of the attack on a Muslim crowd in Finsbury Park on 19 June exhibited a predictably depressing double standard. The perpetrator was a “lone wolf”, and the Mail identified him as “clean-shaven”: phrases it is hard to imagine being used about an Islamist. Yet the media don’t just demonise Muslims in its reporting; they also marginalise them. Coverage of Grenfell contained plenty of references to the churches in this part of west London and its historic black community. Yet Muslims and the relief work carried out by local mosques received comparatively little coverage. Community issues such as Islam’s requirement that the dead are buried swiftly were largely ignored, even though a large number of those killed or made homeless by the fire were Muslim.

I suspect this may have something to do with outdated ideas of what north Kensington is like. But it also must reflect the reality that just 0.4 per cent of UK journalists are Muslim, according to a study by City University in London. The lack of diversity in the media isn’t just a moral issue; it’s one that affects our ability to tell the full story.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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