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Plummeting Labour membership numbers could make ‘lottery’ of Birmingham mayoral selection

Plummeting Labour membership numbers could make ‘lottery’ of Birmingham mayoral selection

🕔31.Jan 2012
English: Gisela Stuart at the House of Commons...

The Chamberlain Files’ estimate that there are about 5,000 Labour members in Birmingham who will have an opportunity to select the party’s candidate to run for directly-elected mayor turns out to have been a tad optimistic.

Insiders reacted to last week’s blog with mutterings of “if only, if only”.

It has now been confirmed that Labour has just 3,862 members in the whole of Birmingham.

This is of course a sad reflection of disengagement with party politics. In a city where 720,000 adults are registered to vote only half of one per cent has joined Labour, although the figure for Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties is hardly likely to be any greater.

There is in any case a large question mark over just how many Labour members will be entitled to take part in the selection process for a mayor anyway, assuming the May referendum produces a yes vote.

A source who is a committee member in an inner-city Labour Party branch reckons that about 20 per cent of the names on his books would be ineligible to vote because have not had their membership verified.

That is to say, someone has signed them up to the party but they are yet to turn up and produce identification in order to prove that they actually exist and are who the paperwork claims them to be.

Such problems are commonplace in most inner-city wards, and time may already have run out to go through the verification process before selection for the mayoral candidate begins in the summer.

Let us be generous, and suppose that only 10 per cent of the 3,862 members are unverified and unable to vote. That leaves 3,476 potential voters to choose from declared mayoral candidates Sion Simon, Sir Albert Bore and Gisela Stuart.

But there is another problem, and that is the very real prospect of a low turnout.

Chamberlain Files has discovered that ballot slips for mayoral selection will be sent out in June, in the same envelope as ballot papers for Labour’s National Executive Committee. Average turnout for NEC elections among the party faithful (or, not so faithful) runs at about 18 per cent, although the figure did hit 60 per cent when Ed Miliband was elected leader in 2010.

Again, let’s be generous and suppose that the prospect of selecting a candidate for mayor so galvanises Labour members that turnout hits 40 per cent.  That would mean just under 1,400 people voting to select a candidate for the party that, on current opinion poll standings, is highly likely to provide Birmingham’s first directly elected mayor.

This could be very good news for former Erdington MP Sion Simon, who has based his campaign on meeting and talking to as many party members in Birmingham as possible. Of course Mr Simon, or any other contender, has to secure 51 per cent of the vote to win on the first ballot. That could mean getting the support of about 700 people, give or take a dozen or so.

If the turnout was to fall to 30 per cent then only 1,041 members would be taking part, leaving any one of the three candidates with the task of gaining 521 votes to win on first preference votes alone. Were the turnout to fall to NEC voting levels, well you can do the maths for yourselves but it’s not a very pretty picture.

Should no one manage to climb above that magic 50 per cent figure on first preference votes, the second preference votes have to be taken into account, which is where it becomes far more difficult to predict the eventual winner.

The top two candidates remain in the race, and the second preference votes of all other candidates are redistributed. But, who will the top two candidates be?

Most pundits expect Mr Simon to top the ballot, but opinion is sharply divided over whether Sir Albert or Mrs Stuart will be in second place after the first ballot. There is also a chance that an as yet un-named Asian candidate may emerge, leaving party members to choose from four possible contenders.

It may, therefore, all boil down to the second preference choices by members voting for either Sir Albert or Mrs Stuart, unless of course an Asian candidate does emerge to snatch away a proportion of Sion Simon’s support base – in which case, it’s anyone’s guess.

Friends of Mr Simon have been claiming that Sir Albert is bound to ”come a poor third” on the initial ballot, and that there will be enough second preference votes to propel Mr Simon into the winning position.

Perhaps so, although it should not be forgotten that Sir Albert remains Labour’s pre-eminent figure in Birmingham and that his name on a ballot paper will be instantly familiar to many party members. Whether the same can be said for Mr Simon is a matter of opinion.

The brutal truth is that with so few people likely to vote, the selection process becomes something of a lottery.

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