Our Employment partner, Richard Thomas, looks at the recent Unite election and the changing trends in the labour movement

Len McCluskey has defeated Gerard Coyne, his main rival, by 59,067 votes to 53,544 to remain as Unite's general secretary. The result was closer than many people expected which may explain some of the bitterness that marked the campaign and the controversial decision to suspend Mr Coyne from his post pending unspecified disciplinary proceedings being brought against him.

Aside from the personality politics now playing out there are a couple of other things to note. The turnout was low – just 12.2 per cent – brought down by, among other things, the need for all Unite members to cast a postal vote. When the new Trade Union Act was introduced in 2016 the Government promised a review concerning the potential introduction of electronic methods of voting and balloting trade union members. Such an introduction would significantly assist Trade Unions who are exposed to a significant cost when they need to ballot their members whether for Industrial Action or for internal elections. In addition in the age of “clicktivism” it is likely that the turnout for such ballots would be much higher as members would have to do little more than click to register and then vote. However, there has been limited progress on this review and we wait to see if electronic polling and balloting options will be allowed in the future. The other significant development is that Unite has shed about half a million members, which means that it is technically no longer Britain’s largest trade union as that honour now goes to Unison which is a public-sector union.

The shift attests to the key story about the labour movement, namely that it is getting smaller, older, and more concentrated in the public sector. This trend does not show any signs of slowing and it is consistent with the changing labour market where the numbers of people working as self-employed (currently 5 million) are likely to outnumber the total numbers working in the public sector (currently 5.4 million) in the next few years.