By backing Proportional Representation, the labour movement has restored its historic role at the forefront of calls for democratic refrom
At the 2019 Trade Union Congress, Politics For The Many (PFTM) organised a fringe event about the role democratic reform might play in delivering outcomes for workers. In an open discussion, half a roomful of trade unionists – drawn there by the prospect of a better democracy – discussed the changes they felt were needed in order to level the playing field and reverse the attacks working people had suffered under successive governments.
Much of the discussion focused on policies that enjoyed virtually unanimous support across the labour movement. A democratic upper chamber, far more devolution and votes at 16 were all met with nods of approval and general assent that, yes, these are things we should take for granted in a 21st century democracy.
But the discussion kept leading back to the one, central feature of our political system that seems to set back trade unions and workers’ rights time and again: our First Past the Post electoral system.
The problem was, at that time few trade unions – and only a minority of those that are affiliated to the Labour Party – supported reform of the voting system. Lynne Henderson – of the pro-reform PCS union, as well as chair of PFTM – spoke enthusiastically about Proportional Representation, but wisely cautioned that it could be a long road to winning the backing of the wider labour movement. There was a sense of purpose in the room that day – of commitment to embarking on the work that needed to be done – but privately we suspect many of us did not feel that hopeful that things would turn around quickly.
Fast forward just four years and the pace of change has outstripped anything those few dozen trade unionists imagined was possible. In 2019, unions representing around 3% of Labour affiliates had pro-PR policy. Today, this figure has jumped to over two-thirds. How this change came about is testament to the work of members and activists across the movement, brought together by PFTM and Labour for a New Democracy (L4ND).
It is also the rekindling of the traditional idea that improving the lives of working people means putting political power in their hands – and a return of the trade unions to their historic role at the forefront of democratic reform campaigns.
In 2021, ASLEF voted to support PR at its annual conference, joining longer standing support from FBU, MU and TSSA, led in each case by pressure from the grassroots membership. Each of these were significant, but in terms of votes on the Labour conference floor they were far outgunned – as was demonstrated at the 2021 Labour conference in Brighton. The pro-PR unions voted in favour of a PR motion that was also supported by 80% of Constituency Labour Party (CLP) delegates. Yet so substantial is the vote of the biggest trade unions, the motion was still defeated by a comfortable margin overall.
The motion may not have passed, but the conference debate was a resounding victory – with 20 speakers in favour and only two against. This created the space and the impetus for most of the larger trade unions to have a serious debate about PR. Just one month later, Unite’s NEC offered its policy conference a free vote on electoral reform that resulted in overwhelming endorsement – heralded as historic by general secretary Sharon Graham.
On the back of intense work amongst trade union activists, backed up by the organising know-how of L4ND and PFTM, Unison’s National Delegate Conference followed suit the following June.
It’s easy looking back to forget how unlikely this seemed at the time, just as it did in that TUC meeting room a few years earlier. To have a chance of getting PR debated by Unison that year – let alone passed – meant organising on the conference floor to boost our motion from being around the 100th item on the final day’s order of business to amongst the top 5. Doing that was only possible because of the determination of delegates and volunteers – and the shared understanding that the needs of workers will never remain at the top of the agenda while our governments are elected by First Past The Post.
With Unite and Unison joining the pro-PR ranks – and CWU also voting to condemn FPTP at its own annual conference – the way was paved for the historic vote by the 2022 Labour Party conference in favour of PR. The motion was passed overwhelmingly by a margin of 2:1 or more. The following year, USDAW – whose pro-FPTP policy dated back many years – not only voted to endorse PR, but did so with the approval of its governing NEC.
Amongst Labour’s trade unions, only two now remain officially supportive of the status quo: GMB and Community. Yet even here there are signs of change. Both endorsed the wording that emerged from Labour’s National Policy Forum in July – that “the flaws of our current voting system are contributing to the distrust and alienation that we see in politics”. Like the Labour Party as a whole, these unions now are forced to ask themselves whether ever-growing distrust and alienation in politics is really something they can afford to tolerate – a question these trade unions’ memberships may choose to answer if their leaders do not.
We’ve come a long way since the half-filled TUC fringe event in 2020. Discussions at Labour conference this year will not be about how to win over trade unions, but how to translate the labour movement’s unequivocal support for electoral reform into action by the next Labour government.
The #Labour4PR rally: new government, new way of governing is sponsored by ASLEF and MU, and will hear from General Secretaries and other representatives of affiliated unions as well as major party figures like Andy Burnham. This follows a Saturday night fringe event featuring leading academic Rob Ford, exploring how economic equality must go hand-in-hand with a fair, proportional electoral system. And on the final night of conference on Tuesday evening, all are welcome for a #Labour4PR drinks reception at Cain’s Brewery.
As Labour prepares for government, join us in Liverpool to get involved in the next, crucial phase in Labour movement campaign for equality at the ballot box.
By Caroline Osborne (Labour for a New Democracy) and Nancy Platts (Politics For The Many)