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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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