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

The view from Google Earth is magnificent - but there's a problem

Google Earth is spectacular - but it can give a misleading impression of the planet and the threats we face from climate change. 

 

Google Earth wants you to “get lost” in its updated interactive map. Collaborations with new media partners mean you can now climb Mount Everest, swim with sharks or visit Afghanistan with Zari the purple muppet. No, really:


Source: Google Earth

Yet as Trump slashes support for the science behind satellite imaging, is Google’s emphasis on spectacle leading us down the wrong path?

Google Earth's new look all starts well enough. Opening the new site on your browser takes you to an image of a blue earth floating through the blackness of space. Back in the 1970s, similar images taken from the Apollo space missions helped kickstart the modern environmental movement. As the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle put it: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”


Source: GETTY and Google Earth

And it gets better. Enter a destination in the search bar and you are greeted with the option to link directly out to the Wikipedia page: nerds of the world, rejoice! 

A guided tour from NASAearth is also on hand for anyone whose nerdery is in need of a prompt: “Geostationary satellites in geosynchronous orbits. Greenhouse gases and global warming. Glaciers... going, going, gone,” says the Bob Dylan-esque entry on its "ABCs from Space".

You can then choose to orbit your landmark of choice in 3D. And let’s face it - who doesn’t want to glide around the top of Mont Blanc, pretending to be an eagle? It’s almost as good as the BBC’s actual eagle-cam

But then it hits you. This is no soaring eagle, buffeted by wind currents and having to constantly adjust its flightpath in the face of real-world obstacles. This is a world surveyed at a safe and sanitising distance. Tourism for the Trump age – focused on providing “a consumption experience”. Certainly it is the opposite of “getting lost”.

In fact if anything has been lost or downplayed, it is the principles of scientific enquiry. The program is littered with human choices. Local versions of Google Maps, for instance, have shown different national borders depending on where in the world you log in. And while new, open-data imagery from America's Landsat 8 program is helping bring many regions up to date, other high-resolution imagery comes from commercial providers, such as Digital Globe. And as this Google 'help' page implies, there are issues of time-lag to face. 

You can’t even be sure what you’re looking at still exists. In 2015, Bolivia’s second largest lake vanished - a combination of climate change, El Nino, and irrigation withdrawal caused 2,700 square kilometres of water to evaporate into a dry salt pan. (It has not recovered, and seems unlikely to do so.) Yet on the new version of Google Earth the lake is still a healthy green:


Source: GoogleEarth

The much lauded film clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth II are similarly short on context. As I've argued before, David Attenborough's latest TV series did little to explain the stories behind the spectacle – there was no mention, for instance, of the arctic anthrax outbreak which caused thousands of reindeer to be culled, nor the role of climate change in worsening locust swarms. 

Finally, the new update actually shows you less of the world than it did before. Gone is the “Historical Imagery” tool that allowed you to see how a place had changed through time. Now, the Citadel of Aleppo in Syria is only visible as a bombed-out ruin. A surreal street-view reveals two women cheerily taking a selfie – with debris all around and their legs spliced out of shot:


Source: GoogleEarth

So why do these omissions matter? Because they take users further away from the evidence-based approach of earth science. It turns out that satellite images on their own are of limited use when it comes to quantifying change. Instead researchers must turn the raw pixels into numbers, which can then variously represent everything from forests to cities, glaciers and farms.

As Dr France Gerard at the UK’s Centre for Hydrology and Ecology explains, this process enables us to live in a better managed environment – be that by measuring air pollution or the impact of fertiliser on soil. The centre's landcover map, for instance, has been mapping British land use since 1990. Similar methods allow Sam Lavender’s company to provide Ugandans with a Drought and Flood Mitigation service, as part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme.

Sadly, the need for public engagement has never been more urgent. Brexit and austerity have cast doubt over important projects in the UK. While in Donald Trump’s America, funds for earth monitoring are set to be slashed. Two missions already under the knife are PACE, a spacecraft set to track global ocean health, and CLARREO, which would have produced highly accurate climate records. Trump has also called for the earth-viewing instruments on the DSCOVR satellite to be turned off. Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama, describes this decision as “baffling”.

So what can be done to reverse this trend? Experts I spoke to believe that collaboration is key. With government programs being squeezed, the earth monitoring industry may come to rely increasingly on the trend towards smaller, commercial satellites. These are great for increasing the quantity of data available but their accuracy needs to be constantly checked against the data from the larger and more reliable state-launched equipment.

There’s also still more data out there to share. As Bronwyn Agrios from Astro Digital points out, many countries have been gathering region-specific data – which could, in future, be made open source. “The neat thing about space is that there’s no border,” she concludes.

To help this process, Google Earth could do far more to raise public awareness of the science behind its special effects. Yet at least in one way it is already on the right path: its own new range of collaborations is impressively large. As well as the BBC, you can take interactive tours with The Ocean Agency, the Wildscreen Arkive, and the Jane Goodall Institute – all of whom put conservation up front. The Goodall journey to Tanzania’s Gombe National Park even describes the use of satellite imagery to measure conservation success.

 

More links with other citizen science projects around the world could turn the program into something truly ground-breaking. If it can incorporate these, then desktop-tourism may yet save the planet from Trump. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496