Sadiq Khan’s landslide victory over Tessa Jowell masked a bigger, and more troubling, story for the Labour party. The rumours of astonishingly low turnout among affliated supporters – members of Labour-supporting trade unions who can vote for free – were proved true. Among trade unionists, turnout was just 45 per cent – making up in total 11 per cent of the electorate.
To put the turnout into context first, that’s better than, say, most internal trade union elections. When Len McCluskey was re-elected as Unite’s General Secretary in 2013, it was on a turnout of just 15 per cent. Low turnout has long been a preferred tool by trade union leaders to remain in post, particularly in the old TGWU (now absorbed into Unite). It’s also – superficially – better than the 10 per cent turnout in the affliated section of Labour’s electoral college during the last leadership race.
But raw numbers tell a different story. 10 per cent turnout among affliated trade unionists who were automatically enrolled meant close to 200,000 votes. In the last mayoral selection, close to 24,000 affliate members voted. This time, it was just 9,875. Why does that matter?
Well, among other things, it suggests that if, as looks likely, the Conservatives pass the Trade Union Bill, we now have a clear idea just how many trade unionists will opt-in to paying into Labour’s political funds: not very many at all. Remember that the 180,000 who registered to vote this time only came after considerable organisation on the part of the trade unions, Unite in particular, and it didn’t cost them anything. Actually paying money over to the Labour party? That’s a far bigger ask. Labour’s regular supply of funds will look less like a stream and more like a drought.
And that’s a far bigger problem than anything Jeremy Corbyn might do.