Peter Kenyon says unions need to recognise the benefits of electoral reform go hand in hand with a New Deal for Working People
Idle hopes of banishing the Conservative Party to the dustbin of history suffered a tragic setback with the publication of the much-heralded Brown Commission report on constitutional reform in early December.
There was no reference to electoral reform. This poses a challenge for democratic socialists. The Labour Party 2022 Annual Conference voted overwhelmingly to end the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system for the Westminster Parliament in favour of proportional representation (PR). Does that guarantee electoral reform will be in Labour’s next general election manifesto? No. That can’t be right, surely? Well, at the Chartist AGM in mid-December, an experienced member of the party’s National Executive Committee opined that the unions, who had backed PR at Conference, were quite capable of trading it away for better working conditions for their members. This salutary warning demands some constructive thinking. How can support for PR ahead of manifesto horse-trading be consolidated?
Labour leader Keir Starmer’s strategic thinking about the next election, which will inevitably be fought under FPTP, seems to depend on the Tories losing heavily in red wall and blue wall seats and Labour recovering some seats in Scotland from the Scottish National Party – check out the Brown report and recent opinion polls.
Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the first Labour-led government. Since 1924, Labour has been in power for less than 28 years in total. Visions of a promised land have generally been followed by a Tory government intent on destruction of hard-earned economic, cultural and social gains. The exception was a period of ‘Butskellism’ in the 1950s when it was genuinely difficult to distinguish between Tory policy shaped by Rab Butler and newly-elected Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskill. The last 12 years of Tory-led governments have been most damaging to the lives of the vast majority of people in terms of falling real incomes, cost of housing, standards of education, access to NHS services, availability and cost of public transport, and rising poverty.
A Tory-free future ought to be a key goal for everyone on the centre-left. FPTP might produce a Labour majority government at the next general election; but then, it might not. Even if it did deliver a governing majority, there would be no guarantee that the Tories wouldn’t breed another charismatic, persuasive leader in the Johnson-mould to “do Britain in again” by the time of the general election after next.
Today’s working class leaders in the trade unions are rightly preoccupied by the Tories’ ongoing determination to force yet more austerity on their members, and those working people still do appreciate the potential value of organising. When the current round of disputes is settled, as they will be before too long in the wake of surprising dogged public support, those working class leaders might quietly reflect on whether political energy would be better spent plotting a Tory-free future rather than severing links with Labour.
Propelling PR from the periphery of current political thinking to the centre is a big ask. But reforming the electoral system and lowering the voting age to 16 would help ensure a progressive majority in the Westminster Parliament in perpetuity. To secure that prize, leaders of Labour’s affiliated trade unions just need to link their ‘New Deal for Working People’ to ditching FPTP in time for the general election after next. That is vital to ensure the commitments to be legislated for within 100 days of taking office aren’t repealed in short measure after Labour loses the general election after next if it ignores electoral reform.
Labour Unions (the affiliated trade union body) is circulating a model resolution for constituency Labour parties (CLPs). Just like the Brown Commission report, there is no mention of electoral reform. Given that over half Labour’s CLPs voted through resolutions to support electoral reform, an amendment to make the link to protect the New Deal for Working People from a future Tory government with electoral reform would surely be in order.