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 British politics.

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Quiz: Can you identify fake news?

The furore around "fake" news shows no sign of abating. Can you spot what's real and what's not?

Hillary Clinton has spoken out today to warn about the fake news epidemic sweeping the world. Clinton went as far as to say that "lives are at risk" from fake news, the day after Pope Francis compared reading fake news to eating poop. (Side note: with real news like that, who needs the fake stuff?)

The sweeping distrust in fake news has caused some confusion, however, as many are unsure about how to actually tell the reals and the fakes apart. Short from seeing whether the logo will scratch off and asking the man from the market where he got it from, how can you really identify fake news? Take our test to see whether you have all the answers.

 

 

In all seriousness, many claim that identifying fake news is a simple matter of checking the source and disbelieving anything "too good to be true". Unfortunately, however, fake news outlets post real stories too, and real news outlets often slip up and publish the fakes. Use fact-checking websites like Snopes to really get to the bottom of a story, and always do a quick Google before you share anything. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.