The Labour leadership election: a high leverage, time-limited opportunity for impact (*1 week left to register for a vote*)

It’s gen­er­ally ac­cepted among effec­tive al­tru­ists that vot­ing in na­tional elec­tions is a valuable thing to do. This post ar­gues that the same logic means that par­ti­ci­pat­ing in party lead­er­ship con­tests has an even higher ex­pected value. The costs of par­ti­ci­pat­ing are ex­tremely small, and the odds of hav­ing a de­ci­sive im­pact are far higher than for a na­tional elec­tion.

Edit: This ar­gu­ment ap­plies across the poli­ti­cal spec­trum. One of the best ar­gu­ments for poli­ti­cal party par­ti­ci­pa­tion is similar to vot­ing i.e. get­ting a say in the hand­ful of lead­ing poli­ti­cal figures. We recom­mend that effec­tive al­tru­ists con­sider this as a rea­son to join the party they are poli­ti­cally sym­pa­thetic to­wards in ex­pec­ta­tion of vot­ing in fu­ture lead­er­ship con­tests. We’re in­volved in the Labour Party—and Labour cur­rently has a lead­er­ship elec­tion with only a week left to reg­ister to par­ti­ci­pate. So this post fo­cuses on that as an ex­am­ple, and with a hope that if you’re Labour-sym­pa­thetic you con­sider reg­is­ter­ing to par­ti­ci­pate. We definitely do not sug­gest reg­is­ter­ing to par­ti­ci­pate if you’re not Labour-sym­pa­thetic. Don’t be a ‘hit and run en­try­ist’ (Thanks Greg for the com­ments!).

Ex­am­ple: The Labour lead­er­ship election

For ex­am­ple, for just £4.38, you could be one of around 500,000 in­di­vi­d­u­als who could play a de­ci­sive role in the up­com­ing Labour lead­er­ship con­test.

We be­lieve that, if you’re a UK cit­i­zen or have lived in the UK for the last year, you should pay £4.38 to reg­ister to vote in the cur­rent Labour lead­er­ship, so you can help de­cide 1 of the 2 next can­di­dates for Prime Minister. This vote will also im­pact on which party is in gov­ern­ment, and the like­li­hood of ei­ther the Con­ser­va­tives or Labour be­ing in gov­ern­ment.

This is a time limited op­por­tu­nity for highly lev­er­aged im­pact. Only peo­ple who reg­ister by join­ing the Labour Party by 20 Jan­uary can vote in the lead­er­ship cam­paign. For £4.38, you have a rea­son­able chance of de­ter­min­ing the next can­di­date PM, and there­fore hav­ing an im­pact in the or­der of billions of pounds.


We as­sume you are per­suaded by the stan­dard effec­tive al­tru­ist view in favour of vot­ing, as ar­gued by e.g. 80,000 Hours or Will MacAskill in Do­ing Good Bet­ter, and based in de­ci­sion the­ory and poli­ti­cal sci­ence liter­a­ture. Briefly, you have a small chance to be the de­cid­ing vote be­tween op­tions with a large differ­ence in im­pact, so in ex­pected value it is worth your time.

(This is not a thought ex­per­i­ment. In the 2017 Virginia House of Del­e­gates elec­tion, a sin­gle vote would have flipped the state leg­is­la­ture from Repub­li­can to no over­all con­trol, lead­ing to a po­ten­tially sig­nifi­cantly differ­ent set of policy de­ci­sions [1].)

The ar­gu­ment is even more per­sua­sive for vot­ing in a lead­er­ship elec­tion, as the chance of in­fluenc­ing the out­come is much greater and the im­pact is the same.


In a Gen­eral Elec­tion, you are one vote in tens of mil­lions, e.g. 1 in 32 mil­lion at the 2019 Gen­eral Elec­tion. And most peo­ple live in safe seats where their vote doesn’t make a differ­ence. Even so, it’s still worth vot­ing! But your vote is worth even more in a se­lec­tion. In this se­lec­tion, you are one vote in hun­dreds of thou­sands, e.g. in the 2016 Labour Lead­er­ship Elec­tion you would have been 1 in ~506,000, and your view is counted equally to ev­ery­one else’s. Labour uses an al­ter­na­tive vote sys­tem where if your can­di­date is knocked out, your vote goes to your sec­ond prefer­ence (and so on) - so your vote is even more valuable.


Differ­ences be­tween can­di­date Prime Ministers are huge. Some are dras­ti­cally more likely to be­come PM than oth­ers. And differ­ent PMs can have dras­ti­cally differ­ent im­pact.

For an effec­tive al­tru­ist, that can be the differ­ence be­tween billions of pounds of effec­tively spent for­eign aid or not. The differ­ence be­tween much more hu­mane an­i­mal farm­ing leg­is­la­tion and not. Se­ri­ous fund­ing and in­ter­na­tional effort in cli­mate change, nu­clear weapons, emerg­ing tech­nolog­i­cal risks (like AI and bio) or not. Even if you’re un­sure which of the can­di­dates stand on these is­sues, you have the three month cam­paign pe­riod to find out more—and who if any­one de­serves your vote.


A toy model is imag­ine you have a 1500,000 chance of be­ing the de­cid­ing vote, and the differ­ence in im­pact was £1bn. The ex­pected value of a vote would be £2000. This is 10x the cost of mem­ber­ship. Note these as­sump­tions are in­cred­ibly con­ser­va­tive.


Join­ing the party is the eas­iest way to reg­ister to vote in the lead­er­ship elec­tion [2] . You can do so by filling in a form on the Labour Party web­site. The dead­line to join as a mem­ber if you want to be el­i­gible to vote in the lead­er­ship elec­tion is 5pm on the 20th of Jan­uary.

You can always can­cel your mem­ber­ship (though of course I’d rather you’d stay a mem­ber). The eas­iest way to do so is just by can­cel­ling your di­rect debit and wait­ing un­til your mem­ber­ship is re­voked. See the New States­man site for more op­tions. Edit: We’re cer­tainly not ad­vo­cat­ing join­ing just to can­cel—we’re say­ing you’re not bound in if you change your mind.

Writ­ten by a UK group of peo­ple in­volved in the Labour Party and effec­tive al­tru­ism. Any ques­tions? If you’d like to dis­cuss Labour and effec­tive al­tru­ism, please con­tact David Lawrence at dc_lawrence[at sign]

[1] Out of 100 seats, The Repub­li­cans had already won 50 seats and the Democrats 49 seats. Repub­li­can David Yancey and Demo­crat Shelly Si­monds both re­ceived 11,608 votes and were forced to go to a tie-breaker, where David Yancey won, leav­ing the Repub­li­cans with 51 seats, a 2-seat ma­jor­ity. A sin­gle vote for Shelly Si­monds would have led to a 50-50 split in the leg­is­la­ture and there­fore power-shar­ing be­tween the two par­ties, lead­ing to a po­ten­tially sig­nifi­cantly differ­ent set of policy de­ci­sions. See Vox.

[2] There are other ways to reg­ister for a vote. The other op­tions are to be­come a Registered Sup­porter, or join a group af­fili­ated to the Labour Party: ei­ther a So­cial­ist So­ciety or an af­fili­ated trade union.

Be­com­ing a Registered Sup­porter will cost £25 (at least £20.5 more than be­com­ing a mem­ber). Ap­pli­ca­tions to be­come a reg­istered sup­porter will open at 5pm on the 14th of Jan­uary and only be open for 48 hours, un­til 5pm on the 16th of Jan­uary.

You can also join an af­fili­ated group and be­come an Affili­ated Sup­porter.

One op­tion is to join one of the So­cial­ist So­cieties which in­clude the Fabian So­ciety, the Jewish Labour Move­ment, SERA (Labour’s En­vi­ron­men­tal Cam­paign) etc. The Fabian So­ciety is likely to be the cheap­est short-term op­tion, with a stan­dard mem­ber­ship cost­ing £4.90/​month and £2.50/​month for un­der 21s, stu­dents, the un­waged and re­tired.

You can also join one of the trade unions af­fili­ated to the Labour Party. Th­ese in­clude the three biggest trade unions in the UK: Uni­son, Unite, and GMB. The lat­ter two, Unite and GMB, are open to those work­ing in any pro­fes­sion and have types of mem­ber­ship available for the un­em­ployed, stu­dents and re­tired. Mem­ber­ship rates will de­pend on your cir­cum­stances but ap­pear to be ~£14-15/​month for those in full-time work.

For both of these op­tions, af­ter you join the So­cial­ist So­ciety or a trade union, you will then need to reg­ister as an Affili­ated Sup­porter by 5pm on Mon­day 3 Fe­bru­ary, which you can do here.