A Unison voice for change

Aileen McLoughlin speaks out

Our parliamentary and Westminster voting system is not serving workers. Trade unions know that workers’ rights, collective bargaining, standards of living, the right to organise and our very democracy are under threat. Proportional Representation is known to deliver governments with better trade union policy and legislation and better protection for workers’ rights.

Standing up as a voice against our first-past-the-post system needs to be a priority. This system has given the Conservative Government an 80-seat majority in the Commons, with the ability to pass far-reaching damaging legislation, such as the Election Bill, the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill and the Health and Care Bill. FPTP is the tool that the Conservatives are using to destroy the unions, to silence their voice and to ensure they retain untrammelled power.

In the Commons, opposition parties can argue their case but wield little power; for those that voted for them, their voice is not heard. Strong voices outside parliament are now more important than ever. Unions have a big part to play in protecting our futures from regressive policy and autocratic minority governments.

Working with Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER) South West, I helped to gain support for PR in my Bristol South constituency. After losing to the Green Party in the 2020 local elections, I decided to redirect my energy to making the argument for PR within my union, Unison. I am told that in the past, of the two of the three unions which made up Unison, COHSE was in favour of PR, as were many NUPE members and NUPE Scotland.

I was recently elected to represent SW Unison members on the National Labour Link Committee. Labour Link works directly with, and takes policy to, the Labour Party. It has a network of officers at all levels of the union and forums for democratic policy development. Unison works closely with sympathetic MPs, who can bring early day motions or ask parliamentary questions related to union concerns, public services, housing and trade union rights. Electoral reform needs to be on this list.

Supporters of electoral reform have been working together in a newly formed group, Unison For PR, with support from Politics For the Many and Labour For a New Democracy. We are navigating the rules and deadlines along two pathways to seek to change Unison’s policy: the National Delegate Conference (NDC) in June, and the National Labour Link Forum in July. Twelve local branches have submitted motions in support of PR to the NDC, and we are pressing for regional councils and the NEC to prioritise Motion 102 for discussion in Brighton in June. Pro-PR Labour Link motions are also being considered for discussion at the July forum.

Persuading the Labour Party to support a more proportional voting system should be a priority for Labour Link. Without Labour Party support, we cannot get electoral reform. At the September 2021 Labour Conference, Unison abstained due to lack of existing policy. This cannot happen next time.

In October 2021, Unite passed policy rejecting FPTP and calling for members to examine the pros and cons of voting systems used outside Westminster and in other countries.

There are challenges. In the 2016 Trade Union Act, the Tories set out to make signing up to political funds within unions much harder. Since the implementation of the act in 2018, members have to opt in rather than opt out of the small additional payment to support political campaigning, creating disincentives that have a big impact on campaigning funds.

Unison workforces are exhausted from the pressures of the pandemic and pay packets frozen for over a decade. Workers are under attack from despicable policies like ‘fire and rehire’. Recent ballots on pay have seen disappointingly low turnouts.

In this climate, it can be hard to convince fellow union members that electoral reform should be a key priority. It can be difficult to get members to engage and attend meetings to pass policy. But we need to win the arguments: that most people in this country support more progressive policies, and only 43% of votes were for this government. PR will get us a parliament that reflects the views of all, and will give us a chance to see the change we so badly need.

This is not a left-right issue. It is a positive policy union colleagues can work on together.

We are no strangers to PR in UK elections. Now is the time when affiliated unions need to back the change in the way we elect MPs as soon as Labour forms a government after the next general election.

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