Julian Vaughan says the trade union case for political reform gets stronger by the day
The Tories have a packed agenda. The Elections Bill will exclude anyone who lacks ID from voting, potentially locking out two million people. There are plans to clamp down on trade unions by making them cough up for investigations against them. The policing bill introduces unprecedented new restrictions on protest. They are even planning to change the voting system – imposing First Past the Post on voters for mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections.
They can do all this having won their insurmountable majority of 80 on only 44 percent of the vote. In 2019, like almost every single general election since the Second World War, the left got more votes than the right. And still we were locked out of power.
From Thatcher’s trade union laws that shattered workers’ rights to organise, to the privatisations that have eroded pay and conditions for millions, the gains workers make are all too often swept away by a system at Westminster that systematically benefits reactionaries against those who stand for progress.
We have a government that is free to dish out crony contracts or funnel public money into the marginal seats they need to keep power – making decisions based on political advantage not actual need.
Take the Conservatives’ £3.6 billion ‘Towns Fund’, investigated by the Public Accounts Select Committee and the National Audit Office over concerns about how the money was spent. They found the Towns Fund not only disproportionately favoured Tory-held towns but specifically those in which the Tory lead was marginal. It is pork barrel politics of the worst kind, incentivised by Westminster’s voting system.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Across much of the UK voting by proportional representation – where seats match votes – is already a way of life. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as the London Assembly, devolved elections have been conducted on a more proportional basis from the start.
England and Westminster lag behind, holding on to a broken system of democracy that is failing us all. The unelected House of Lords and the warped Commons are part of the same elitist system that silences millions of people each election.
But the campaign for voting reform within the labour movement is growing. Unions can now back reform in the knowledge that a healthy democracy is not just nice to have but vital for the more equal society we want to see.
In Summer 2021, my own trade union, Labour-affiliated ASLEF, became the latest to back the call for proportional representation at Westminster. Among the other 11 Labour unions in TULO backing voting reform are the (now disaffiliated) Bakers Union (BFAWU), the Musicians Union (MU), and TSSA, the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association. Trade union members can find out their union position and try to influence it.
Politics for the Many, the trade union campaign for political reform, have helped lead the way, working with Labour for a New Democracy. Groups like Momentum and Open Labour are now clear about the case for an overhaul at the ballot box.
There is a historic duty for Labour and the trade unions to reclaim the cause of democratic reform as their own and make the case for radical reform to Westminster.
For too long power in this country has been in the hands of a small ruling class.
As we rebuild from the pandemic we need to find a better way.
We cannot simply build a just society through the private members’ club that is an unreformed Westminster. The time for root-and-branch change is now. Trade unionists must help lead the way.