Campaigning for Labour to back proportional representation

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trade unionists for voting reform

The support of Trade Unionists is absolutely key to the success of our campaign to change the Labour Party's policy on the voting system, because the Party Conference can only vote in favour of voting reform with the support of the affiliated Trade Unions.

The support of the largest affiliated Unions (Unite, Unison, the GMB) is particularly crucial - but members of smaller or unaffiliated Unions also have an important role to play, in terms of demonstrating the strength of support for electoral reform.

What every Trade Union member can do

  • Request a speaker for your trade union branch
  • Order a copy of The Many Not the Few, or our "Myths and Rebuttals" cards for speakers
  • Do some background reading
  • Submit a resolution on voting reform to your local or regional meeting, or your union's Congress.
  • Use your personal contacts: discuss voting reform with anyone you know who is active or influential in the Trade Union movement.
  • Contact your union representatives on your Labour regional board, NEC, National Policy Forum or Justice and Home Affairs Commission
  • Find out the views of your MP or Prospective Labour Candidate.

Arguments for trade unionists

  • Unions are about democracy.  It is in our DNA.  
  • Democracy is our value, along with solidarity, equality and justice or legitimacy.
  • We have an imbalance of wealth in this country and need a voting system that ensures the many not to few influence the outcome of elections.  Elections can be determined in fewer than 100 marginals.  Other seats may never change hands.
  • Trade Unions themselves are coalitions and are used to negotiations.    
  • Democracy should be for all, for majorities and minorities.  
  • Trade unions need to be able to influence national, subregional and local government all the time as happens in systems which have other more inclusive systems, rather than only having influence if there is a strong Labour government or local Labour group.  We need to do away with vote mountains and vote deserts.  
  • Too often under the current system, trade unions are cut out of power, remember the the banning of trade unions at GCHQ and the anti trade union legislation.  
  • We need more debate about how our voting system affects our political culture and outcome in bread and butter issues, speakers, weekend schools, conference fringes.  
  • Previous polls have shown trade unionists are stronger supporters of change than “the chattering classes”.  
  • Evidence shows that increasingly Labour members support electoral reform.  Trade Union members also support other parties including ones which like key voters in marginal constituencies which support electoral reform.  
  • Trade Unions have a vested interest in establishing a pluralist democracy where all voices are heard, all votes count and which will survive whichever party is in government.
  • Individual trade unionists are showing us the way, Howard Bennett, Billy Hayes, Nancy Platts, Mark Serwotka, Shavanah Taj, Sam Tarry.  Add your name!  

    Ask yourself, does your vote count? And if not, why not?  

    Billy Hayes, in support of PR

    Billy Hayes
    former General Secretary, CWU;
    Steering Group,
    Politics for the Many

    “I voted to stay in the EU. I was disappointed with the referendum result - but I found the process strangely democracy-enhancing. Every person knew their vote counted. Suddenly, "one person one vote" actually meant just that.

    I would like to see Labour going into the 2020 election with a commitment to PR in its Manifesto, together with a commitment to other democratic reforms, including an elected House of Lords and automatic voter registration.”

    Nancy Platts, supporter of electoral reform

    Cllr Nancy Platts
    (Leader, Brighton & Hove City Council; co-founder of Politics for the Many)

    "Westminster’s voting system has allowed governments to form with very little popular support. In 2010, the Conservatives secured 36% of the vote – but 47% of seats. In 2015, they secured 37% of the vote – and 51% of the seats. And [in 2017] they won 44% of the vote but just a whisker-off the majority of seats.

    First Past the Post could even deliver a ‘wrong winner’: in 1951 the Conservative Party won 48% of the vote to 48.8% for Labour, yet the election saw a Conservative majority. New Zealand saw two 'wrong winner' elections in a row in 1978 and 1981, setting the country on the road to electoral reform.

    There has long been a campaign for Labour to back fair votes in the UK. But unions have a significant role to play as the voice of workers on the ground. Indeed, it was unions swinging behind the pro-PR movement that proved crucial in ensuring reform in New Zealand. 

    Trade unionists have now launched a campaign, ‘Politics for the Many’ to call on Labour and unions to back root and branch democratic reform, in the light of both the centenary of suffrage – and the urgent need for proportional representation."

    Read a longer version of this article in Open Democracy

    Mark Serwotka, supporter of prooprtional representation

    Mark Serwotka

    (Leader, PCSU)

    “Adopting PR for future general elections would make every vote count in all parts of the country. It would force parties to change how they behave, as well as how voters cast their ballot, and stop them taking the majority for granted.

    PCS wants to see a more progressive politics which more closely reflects the spread of views in the public. From the Chartists pushing for universal suffrage to the Scottish TUC role campaigning for a Scottish Parliament, trade unions have often been at the forefront of demands for a better democracy that puts working people at the centre.”

    a brief History of trade unions and voting reform

    After the Great Reform Act, 1832, there were moves to find representation with the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists.  Since the formation of the Trade Union Congress in 1868 at the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute, many trade unionists have supported electoral reform.  Voting reform was often linked with broadening the franchise, especially at first to allow men to vote and then universal franchise on equal terms.

    It seems likely that early trade unionists, men and women, also supported voting reform especially such names as Annie Besant, Keir Hardie, Mary Macarthur, Eleanor Marx, Will Thorne, Benjamin Tillett were around during this debate.  

    Although once there was full male franchise in 1918, the fortune of the Labour Party changed.  It replaced the Liberal Party in a two party system. During the Second World War Reg Underhill moved a resolution at the TUC from his trade council on electoral reform, which resurfaced at that time because Labour could not put up candidates against the Government.  He was a founder member of the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff.  He became Labour’s National Agent and was a member of the Plant Commission in 1990 when he supported electoral reform.  

    In the more recent past, affiliated trade unions have supported the debate inside the Labour Party on our voting system, supported a referendum in 1997.  In 1998 before the Jenkins Commission reported, Tom Watson and Mary Southcott wrote a concordat, signed by Stephen Twigg, as LCER Chair and Ken Jackson as AEEU General Secretary, so that the critical resolution against Jenkins was remitted by Conference.  

    On the whole Trade Unionists were allowed a free vote on Alternative Vote in the disastrous Referendum in 2011.  That was the wrong system, at the wrong time.

    A few trade unions, such as TSSA and ASLEF have policy on electoral reform.  But the larger affiliated trade unions, the GMB, UNISON, UNITE and USDAW have depriorised constitutional reform and failed to make the link between bread and butter issues and the voting system which elects MPs.  

    One unaffiliated trade union, has supported and pioneered work on voting reform, consulted its membership and required the TUC to do work on voting systems.  This is the PCS. The trade union documents can be read here,, which itself is a reworking of a previous document,

    After a successful LCER fringe at the 2017 TUC Congress, organised by Billy Hayes, LCER’s Trade Union Officer, and having on the platform, Nancy Platts, now Brighton Council Leader and former advisor to Jeremy Corbyn, UNITE Deputy Leader, Howard Beckett, and Mary Southcott, LCER Parliamentary and Political Officer, the Electoral Reform Society set up a Trade Union campaign, the Politics of the Many, see  

    LCER Model Resolution for Trade Unions

    [This union] notes that many trade unionists have traditionally supported First Past the Post, the voting system used for UK general elections since the 18th Century.

    We believe that many of the arguments historically advanced in support of FPTP are no longer valid in a modern multi-party political system.

    • FPTP has been said to deliver "strong" government. In fact it has delivered Conservative-led coalitions in two of the last three elections.
    • FPTP is said to be simple. In fact FPTP is anything but simple for the millions of people who have to decide between voting for the party they support, and voting tactically for a party they do not support but may have a chance of winning a seat.
    • FPTP has been said to provide a shortcut opportunity for the Labour Party to implement a radical programme on a minority of votes. In fact, in the UK FPTP delivers Conservative goverments about twice as often as Labour governments - and many of these Conservative governments would not have been returned to power under a proportional voting system.

    We note further that the vast majority of democratic countries use proportional voting systems, and research shows that left-leaning governments with redistributive programmes are elected more often under proportional systems than under FPTP.

    EITHER [weaker]

    We note that the Labour Party has pledged to set up a constitutional convention to examine and bring forward democratic reform.

    We support the establishment of this constitutional convention, and believe that it should include in its remit an investigation into  alternative voting systems to FPTP.

    OR [stronger]

    We call upon the Labour Party to include a commitment to introducing a more proportional voting system in its next manifesto.

    Politics for the Many: Model Resolution for Trade Unions

    [Note: this is a general motion on democratic reform. LCER recommends the addition of an additional clause (d) in italics, to make it clear that a programme of reform should include electoral reform for the House of Commons.]

    This union believes that for politics to favour the many and not the few, our democracy is in urgent need of reform.

    Reform is essential for delivering economic and social justice and addressing growing regional inequalities across the UK.

    We recognise that the state, its institutions and how we regulate society have been captured by big corporations and a small elite group of people based mainly in London. They do not act in the interests of working people and the trade unions who represent them.

    At the heart of our democracy should sit the sovereignty of the people and rights of citizens. Instead, we have an unelected House of Lords that is outdated, unrepresentative and increasingly irrelevant.

    If power continues to be hoarded at Westminster we cannot achieve social and economic change and advance the goals of trade unions and working people across all parts of the UK.

    We are in a democratic crisis and reform is an urgent priority.

    This union supports:

    a.) The need to make democratic reform a priority to achieve lasting change for working people

    b.) The abolition of the House of Lords to be replaced with a Senate of the Nations and Regions to strengthen the voice of all parts of the United Kingdom. The Senate should provide a place for cross-border working, issue resolution and collaboration as well as acting as a revising chamber for UK legislation.

    c.) An English Constitutional Convention that allows citizens to choose what they want for their communities and have a say in their own governing arrangements to continue the UK’s process of devolution.

    d) A voting system for Westminster which makes votes count, which reaches out to safe Labour seats and which illustrates how Labour will exercise power with the people. 


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