Why trade unionists must back electoral reform

First Past the Post works to the Tories' advantage.

Voting Ballot Box

Lynn Henderson, Chair, Politics for the Many (Senior National Officer, PCS Union)

The last time a Labour Prime Minister occupied Number 10 Downing Street the country looked very different. Labour’s impact on Britain could be seen everywhere. From the minimum wage, the Human Rights Act, Sure Start Centres and record investment in education and the NHS, the benefits of over a decade of progressive government were clear.

Today we couldn’t be further from that. When the country is faced with the fallout from Brexit, a cost-of-living crisis and rising inflation we have a government that limps from scandal to scandal – from partygate fines for Number 10 to the accusations of sleaze and corruption that have plagued this party for months.

And that’s before you even get on to laws they’ve passed. From banning peaceful protest, threatening to ship desperate asylum seekers to Rwanda to staging a power grab over our electoral system – we’re seeing a dangerous Tory agenda changing our country for the worse.

This is a government acting with virtual impunity. They know full well that the nature of our electoral system means that when it comes to removing them from power the odds are stacked against the left and the results are plain to see.

After 12 years of Tory rule, Britain is in desperate need of change.

But for them, the challenge of holding on to power is often too easy. The Tory party, which have always viewed themselves as the natural party of government are in many ways just that –not through any divine right or qualification but due to the inbuilt advantage that our voting system gives them.

First Past the Post works to the Tories’ advantage. Their votes are more ‘efficient’ in transferring to seats which means that come election day even if Labour and the Tories are neck and neck when the ballots are counted the Tories would end up on top. It took on average 38,264 votes to elect a Tory MP in 2019, but for Labour, that same figure was over 50,000.

This is before you even factor in the way that ‘progressive’ votes are split in British politics. The centre and left of centre are fractured between support for Labour, the Liberal Democrats and in many places the Greens. That means for those of us who campaign on progressive issues, be that in trade unions or campaign groups – the fight to get a progressive government, or a progressive party with a majority to rule is that much harder.

In just one general election since 1945, the Tories and other parties to the right of Labour gained more than 50% of the vote. Yet, for two-thirds of that time, it is the Tories who have been in power.

Until we address the inequalities of our electoral system, progressives will always have an uphill fight.

First Past the Post means that Labour has a mountain to climb to get back into government. The system means the odds are stacked against them and the party, and progressives generally, must overperform at the ballot box to stand any chance of success.

The fact is, despite a majority of people voting for parties other than the Conservatives at the last election – it was Boris Johnson who was rewarded with an 80-seat majority, despite taking just 43% of the vote.

Trade unionists have always been on the front line when fighting for democratic rights and the fight for a fairer voting system is a key part of that.

At Labour Party conference last year 80% of ordinary members backed the call for proportional representation but, due to a lack of support from trade unions, attempts to get Labour behind reform, fell short.

But that could be about to change. As Trade Union conference season takes place this summer, unions up and down the country will be debating support for electoral reform.

As a movement, we’re united in our fight to beat the Tories, but now as trade unionists, we’re lining up against the very system that enables them.

It’s time now not just to kick the Tories out, but to scrap the system that has kept them there for too long. No party should have a majority in parliament unless they get a majority of the votes.

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