Electoral reform is a workers’ issue – trade unions have a vital role to play

The Electoral Reform Society hosted a fringe event at this week's TUC Congress


The following is a report of the Electoral Reform Society’s fringe event at this week’s TUC conference: ‘The TUC’s Report on Electoral Reform – What Next?’.

Historically, electoral reform has been about the extension of the franchise from a privileged few to working people — non-property owning men in the 19th century to women in the early 20th — and trade unions have often been at the forefront.

Today, the push for reform continues to encompass many issues concerning our democratic health: the role and composition of a second chamber; the voting age; party funding, and a debate about the place of first past the post, reignited by the 2015 general election — the most disproportionate in Britain’s history.

But the vital role trade unions have played in furthering democratic participation — for everyone’s benefit — and the specific relevance of electoral reform to trade union members can sometimes get lost when the debate becomes about minutiae of alternative systems.

So at the TUC this week, speakers at the Electoral Reform Society’s event tackled the fundamental issues of why and how voting reform relates to trade union members.

First Howard Beckett, Unite’s Director of Legal Services, argued trade unions’ efforts for workers’ rights are hampered under first past the post, a system which continually gives governments elected with a minority of the popular vote untrammelled legislative power — with the constant ‘swings’ from an unwarranted majority for one side going to the other side meaning any achievements can be rapidly ‘unwound’.  

For democratic participation more generally, the system is hugely damaging, with a safe seat culture creating no-go areas where parties are inactive and people taken for granted.

Lynn Henderson, PCS’ National Officer for Scotland and Ireland, spoke about the narrowing of political debate under a system that rewards parties for clustering towards the centre-ground around the (often assumed) concerns of a handful of voters from marginal constituencies.

Trade unions wanting to pursue an ambitiously anti-austerity agenda have no prospect of getting their issues aired, let alone becoming part of the mainstream of a general election campaign, when the political spotlight is on the often more affluent swing seats rather than where most people are.

Lynn also shared a Scottish perspective, where the Additional Member System gives parties a fairly proportional share of seats in the Scottish Parliament, whereas under first past the post seats at Westminster are hopelessly unreflective of the popular vote.

Lynn raised the very principled stance of the SNP, which despite massively benefiting from FPTP at the last election continues to support PR, because it’s the right thing to do.  

Third, Ian Lawrence, General Secretary of NAPO, stressed the urgency of electoral reform in an era when some people are turning away from voting – somewhat rationally in the knowledge that they may be among the millions whose vote are wasted — with 50 per cent left unrepresented through having just one winning candidate. The EU referendum sits in sharp contrast, he said, with typical experience: every single vote counted equally, and there was no post-code lottery.

In the discussion after, challenges were raised about what replacing first past the post could mean for government formation; relations between local residents and elected representatives, and crucially, for younger people’s engagement with politics.

But the embedded nature of first past the post in our political culture, where activists enjoy their party’s spell in power then endure periods in the wilderness must be challenged if reform is to be embraced. For many, it is the fear of extremists gaining a foot-hold through a fairer allocation of votes to seats, that keeps them clinging onto what they know.

Yet many also acknowledged that winning the argument — and votes — is infinitely better than relying on a rigged system.

Our debate followed last year’s motion to Congress to undertake a fresh look at the issue. The TUC’s publication of their new report on electoral reform is now a springboard for trade union members to grasp the nettle and openly debate the issue of electoral reform.

Unite is already committed to holding a special conference on electoral reform and it is fantastic to see other trade unions open up debate, locally and nationally, in order to reach a position based on the most up-to-date picture of what first past the post means for unions, their members and the public generally.

Trade unions have often propelled our democratic culture forward, helping to secure ambitious extensions to the franchise by challenging the idea that power should lie with one group or class.

With electoral reform back on the agenda — and Labour reformers from all wings of the movement, from John McDonnell to Chuka Umunna), the voices of trade union members on this are vital in the debate.

After all — it’s their votes, within the increasingly diverse politics we have in the UK — which are now so often being cast aside.

Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society. Follow her on Twitter

See also: Why Electoral Reform is a Trade Union Issue’

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