12 May 2015

Unions in chaos over role in vote for new Labour leader

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband waves after announcing his resignation as leader at a news conference in London

Labour’s affiliated trades unions look pretty bewildered today over what role they’ll play in the election of a new Labour leader.

Constitutionally, there’s no longer an electoral college in which trade unions play a big part, as they famously have done in leadership elections over the last 35 years.

But union members could still play a decisive role in the contest.  I stress the word “could”.

The level of trade union involvement could be determined by when exactly the contest is held. especially after 2010 when Ed Miliband secured his election through union members outvoting MPs and ordinary members.

Officially the electorate in the forthcoming contest is follows:

1.  the party’s 221,000 official individual members
2.  a new category of registered supporters – number unknown, though probably about 10,000
3.  a new category of affiliated supporters – members of affiliated organisations (mainly unions) who knowingly sign up as being affiliated supporters

It’s the third category that is by far the most interesting.  Potentially, it could number in the hundreds of thousands.

The total membership of the 14 unions affiliated to the Labour Party is in the region of 3-4 million people.  If 1o per cent of those members were registered as affiliated supporters of the party that would produce 300-400,000 trade union members who were qualified to vote in the leadership contest.  That figure could easily outnumber the number of ordinary individual members.

But it seems Labour’s affiliated unions have been very slow to recruit these new affiliated members.  “We simply didn’t expect a leadership election”, one senior union figure told me.

“We all expected Ed to be Prime Minister.  We were all concentrating on getting Labour elected.  We weren’t prepared for this.”

Ringing round Labour’s unions today the response to our enquiries has been one of bewilderment, and a growing acceptance of the implications.

Now unions are slowly waking up to the fact they need quickly to send Labour HQ lists of affiliated supporters if they are to play a significant role in the leadership ballot.

They have some names already – mainly of recent recruits – but now they’ll have to embark on a blitz of their existing membership lists.  The easiest way will be to concentrate their efforts on large work-places where they have strong membership.  And the longer the timetable for the contest, the more union people are likely to be involved.

An interesting exception is London, where unions have put in some activity in recruiting affiliated supporters to Labour’s ranks in preparation for the forthcoming ballot on who should be Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London next year.

If you add that to the fact that ordinary Labour membership is proportionately a lot higher in London, it means voters from the capital will have a very strong role in the contest, which should help Chuka Umunna.

Yet it’s outside London where Labour is most in trouble and needs to become attractive to various unsympathetic groups, such as Ukip voters, SNP voters andclass southern voters.

Administratively, it could prove a nightmare. Because it’s a lot more complicated than unions simply recruiting as many affiliated members as they can, and producing names and addresses.

The Labour Party then has to go through those names one by one, and check to see if they are actually on the public electoral register.  Given the low levels of voter registration in working-class areas, many affiliated supporters may end up being disqualified.

Labour’s NEC will meet tomorrow to decide on the leadership timetable.  The three options laid out by acting leader Harriet Harman yesterday were:

1.  an early contest with result in July (as in 1994);
2.  a medium contest with the result in early September, two weeks before Labour conference
3.  longer contest, using Labour conference as a “beauty contest”, with the result in late October

But there’s nothing to stop the NEC deciding on another option.  If Labour decide to elect their new leader in July – the shortest timetable being considered – then very few affiliated members are likely to take part.  A vote in October, however, might conceivably mean affiliated members outnumber ordinary members.

Broadly the unions – and Unite, the strongest, in particular – will want a longer contest, so as to recruit as many affiliated members as possible.  More “Blairite” forces may prefer a short contest so as to limit the union role.

A lot rests on tomorrow’s NEC meeting.  It could, in effect, determine who becomes Labour leader, the extent to which the unions play a role in their election, and whether they can again be portrayed as the kingmakers.

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