Opinion: Unions rip off Labour leadership

  • 18/11/2014

It is the great union robbery - the unions have stolen Labour's leadership.

The unions have installed their man Andrew Little as Labour's boss through a backdoor takeover, in what you'd call a perverse outcome.

Grant Robertson was more popular with the MPs and party membership which, under Labour's system, count for 80 percent of the final say.

But because Little was extremely popular with the unions that have 20 percent, he gets to be party leader.

Robertson should feel ripped off and so should Labour MPs and members, because the reality is Little's tiny victory was decided by a small grouping of union bosses.

You see, only Labour's six affiliated unions have control over the 20 percent vote for the leadership – Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing (EPMU), Dairy Workers, Meat Workers and Related Trades, Rail and Maritime Transport, Maritime, and Service and Food Workers (SFW).

So it is not actually "the unions" which stole Labour's leader - it is actually just six private sector unions.

Just six unions out of the 144 in New Zealand is hardly representative.

And the EPMU which Little was of course the boss of, has the most votes for the Labour leadership.

It gets even worse. Only the SFW give their members a vote; the other five let delegates decide for its members.

The union vote is not one person, one vote. It is not democracy – it is a union muscle job.

By my count, about 150 delegates have a say. And we all know the delegates largely do what the union bosses say – that's why Little ended up with 75 percent of the union vote.

And guess what? A senior union and Labour source tells me those delegates are mostly men.

The irony is that Labour, despite its crusade for gender equality, has let its leadership be decided by a bunch of blokes.

The bosses of just five unions have incredible influence over Labour at a time when union membership is waning, making up just 15.7 percent of the workforce – not even one in every five workers.

I would say Labour's affiliated unions make up just one third of that. They'd be lucky to account for 5 percent of the workforce.

This is a problem for Little, because a 1 percent victory is obviously not a clear mandate.

The party is essentially split down the middle, and if things don't go well, the muttering in Labour will be "he only won because of the unions".

Furthermore, it will be hard for Little to break the public perception that he is a union boss installed by his mates. John Key and National will obviously really try and ram this home.

And there's an example of a Labour leader installed by the unions – his name is Ed Miliband.

Just like Little, Miliband didn't win the British Labour party membership, and he didn't win the MPs, but he did win the union vote. And right now, Miliband has terrible poll ratings.

The truth is this: Little won the Labour leadership thanks to a handful of his union mates. That doesn't mean he can't or won't do a good job.

Little could not win the New Plymouth electorate. Little could not win the Labour Party membership. Little could not win the Labour MPs.

All Little could win was his union mates.

But Little now needs to win votes out in the real world with real voters. His union mates can't muscle them.

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