Photo: Andrew Skudder (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Trade unions are moving for change, reports Mary Southcott

Labour is incrementally making its way towards taking electoral reform into government. The 2021 Unite policy conference dropped its support for the current voting system, emulated by the Communication Workers. And at the end of its national delegate conference, Unison, the public sector union, not only abandoned first-past-the-post, but endorsed a proportional voting system. Aileen McGoughlin, who wrote for the Chartist‘s trade union supplement, moved the resolution: “Under our system, so many people’s votes, so many of our members’ votes, do not count. Millions of people do not get an MP that they voted for. People often cannot vote for who they agree with but have to vote tactically to avoid getting the worst option.” She went on to the TUC demonstration, ‘We Demand Better’. We assert the same about a 19th century voting system which magics a Tory minority vote into an unassailable rubber stamp. 

Looking back to Annual Conference 2021, of 11 Labour unions, four supported electoral reform: Musicians, ASLEF, TSSA and the Fire Brigades. Nine months later, Unite has moved from ‘opposed’ to ‘support’/’abstain’, the CWU has voted against the current voting system, and Unison has moved to outright support. In number terms we are there. We need the debate. Prioritisation depends on constituency delegates.

Those supporting the status quo are GMB, USDAW, Community and NUM. What now? Ideally, Labour would speak with one voice. We are not quite there, but even an arithmetical victory allows the Labour leadership to support the necessary commitment in Labour’s manifesto.  

We need more conversations with and among trade unionists. Labour representatives need openly to support change: prospective parliamentary candidates, NEC and National Policy Forum representatives, and MPs. 

We need awareness that red and blue walls are artificial constructs which disengage the majority from effective influence in general elections. Enfranchisement, fought for by trade unions, Chartists and suffragettes, has one more step to take. Votes need to count. They don’t, which is one reason for Labour losses, first in Scotland, then in other Labour areas once taken for granted. 

Labour can only legislate after the election, but it can up its chances of winning by gaining Lib Dem and Green tactical votes in Conservative-Labour marginals, as the Cook-Maclennan agreement did in 1997. Now, Labour needs to make a better offer – not a referendum, but the announcement of PR legislation in the first Queen’s Speech. That could unite the centre and left voters in the way Brexit united the right in 2019.   

Roadblocks still exist. Trade unions need to hear from other parties about workers’ human rights. They want a system. Consensus could emerge on retaining the MP-constituency link within a proportional system. We gave an additional member system to West Germany after World War 2 and agreed it for Scotland, Wales and Greater London. New Zealand’s has elected two women prime ministers. 

Things change! Will Hutton foresees the unwinding of Thatcherism. It was Margaret Thatcher who told David Frost in 1995 that going into opposition would be disastrous. “They might change the voting system.” Labour didn’t, but we can now. The next general election may be more 1992 than 1997, but Labour can win if it adopts electoral reform and voters decide on informed tactical voting, just as they did in both Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton.    

2 COMMENTS

  1. Paul, you have led a sheltered life. You should have been with me last weekend in Wells. Their constituency is targeted by the LibDems and they have to make up their minds between tactical voting and giving the seat to the Tories. The whole south west region has six Labour MPs. Mathematically, first past the post makes no sense. The result depends on how many candidates of parties on the right or left of the political spectrum are standing or targeting. If only it was as easy as electing a Labour Government on a Labour programme. When did that last happen? Labour is the small political party in many rural and southern areas. Let’s have a principled voting system that works for modern politics and which New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Sweden seem happy to live with. Robin Cook was right first past the post drives us to capture the floating voter in the marginal constituency who probably reads the Daily Mail. Since when were they electing a Labour government on a Labour programme.

  2. The keenness for PR seems to be based on the idea that it will encourage and enable the growth of small political parties to rival Labour and which can then be used as vehicles for a range of factions such as disaffiliated trade unions and Leninist groupings. Also known as “getting your own way via the back door”. I’ll stick with seeking to elect a Labour Government on a Labour programme.

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