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3 June 2015

Are the trade unions really signing up 1,000 members a day to vote in the Labour leadership election?

You should never trust a round number in politics, and this one in particular looks fishy.

By Stephen Bush

An arresting statistic is doing the rounds in Labour circles inside and outside Westminster: Unite, the country’s largest trade union, is signing up 1,000 members a day to vote in the party’s internal elections, in a bid to secure the London Mayoralty for Sadiq Khan and the Labour leadership for Andy Burnham. Is it true?

As a rule of thumb, it’s always good to be dubious about pleasingly round numbers, and this one in particular. It’s not impossible that Unite is signing up 1,000 members to vote for its favoured candidates a day. It does, however, seem rather unlikely given what we know about a) call centres and b) trade unions.

Let’s start with a). Under Labour’s old electoral system, members of affliated trade unions were automatically entered into the ballot, into the third section of the electoral college – which included trade unions, socialist societies and other ginger groups. Now trade unionists must make an active choice to sign up, and in order to facilitate this process, Unite have turned to a call centre to get their members registered. Unite have around one and a half million members in total, although some of them will be dead, unaware they’ve cancelled their direct debits, or both. 

Fundraisers at a variety of popular charities, ranging from international aid to cancer prevention, are dubious. They all say that their response rate on telephone campaigns is below ten percent. One, who works at a nationally-respected cancer charity, upon hearing the “1,ooo a day” figure, bluntly responded: “That’s complete bollocks.” Another describes it as “completely impossible”.  (Several call centres were contacted by the New Statesman for this story. All declined to give an average response rate.) 

It seems likely that preventing cancer or feeding the world’s poorest children is more popular with the public at large than the Labour party is with Unite’s membership – an Ashcroft poll found that under half of Unite’s activists were planning to vote for the party at the next election, a figure which, if anything, may have been slightly too high. So it’s unlikely that Unite could possibly be persuading 1,000 of its one and half million strong membership to sign up every day. 

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The figures are even more implausible once you look at the last leadership election. In 2010, turnout among affliated supporters was just 10.5 per cent. Across all affliates – everything from the Society of Labour Lawyers to Black and Ethnic Minority Labour to Unite itself – just 199,671 votes were cast. (Remember, too, that some of those votes were cast by the same people – a black lawyer whose registered union was Unite, for example, could vote three times.) 

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If from the opening of activist registration to the final deadline, Unite signed up 1,000 trade unionists a day, by the end of the contest, they would have added 208,000 members to Labour’s electorate – 8,239 more than voted from any trade union in 2010. 

So a more plausible “nightmare scenario” for Labour members isn’t a choice that is divergently opposed to their own, thrust on them by thousands of new members. What’s far more likely, in the words, of one glum party staffer, is that “when the trade unions see how little influence they have now, they’ll be off”. And without being cruel, it’s difficult to see who’d be willing to hand over anything like the amount of money the trade unions currently do to a Labour party that looks very far indeed from power.