Union may opt out of vote on John Smiths's successor

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(First Edition)

More than 130,000 trade unionists may today be denied their right to vote in a Labour leadership contest.

Leaders of Ucatt, the construction union, meet to decide whether their political levy payers should participate in any election.

At a session of the union's executive yesterday it was argued that the union, which has been experiencing severe financial problems, could ill afford the pounds 60,000 cost of a postal ballot.

Some members of the union's executive argue that Ucatt should ignore the clear advice of the Labour Party executive that ballot papers should be sent to members' homes and that the forms should be distributed at branch meetings or workplaces, a system open to abuse in the past.

The firefighters' and bakers' unions are also thought to be considering a similar method, partly because it saves a considerable sum on postage.

The National Union of Mineworkers, which last year claimed to have 50,000 levy payers, but probably has nearer 7,000 now, will also find it impossible to organise a postal vote because of the speed with which the industry has contracted.

At Ucatt many senior activists who opposed the system of one-member-one-vote (OMOV) introduced at last year's Labour conference, argue that the union should be spending nothing on the process and should simply opt out of it. The Labour Party wants details from all unions on their voting processes by this Friday.

One anomaly thrown up by the OMOV system is that some unions will have more voting power than their offical affiliation figure would suggest. In the case of Ucatt, while it affiliates 42,000 of its members to the party, 133,000 pay the political levy. This is simply a device for retaining funds for the union's own political campaigns rather than handing it all over to Labour. The union argues that it cannot simply carve out 42,000 members at random. Therefore if it decides to hold a ballot 133,000 papers will be distributed even though that gives the union more votes in the election than its financial contribution to the party would warrant.