Chartism for the 21st Century: Why trade unions are backing an overhaul of Westminster

Nancy Platts argues for a radical reshaping of our voting system.

April 19, 2018
6 min read

At the start of this year, an unreported change took place in the union movement – one that could set the ball rolling for a significant shift in British politics.

In recent years, trade unions have opposed reforming Westminster’s voting system. The last time we had a choice about electoral systems – the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011 – Labour was undecided, and many unions opposed reform.

At the time one union leader argued: “first-past-the-post delivers strong, single-party government.” After three ‘weak and wobbly’ elections in a row – 2011 seems like another universe now.

So trade unionists are beginning to re-assess the evidence. As Unite’s Assistant General Secretary Howard Beckett has noted:

“The starting point in this debate should be to ask: ‘Has the First Past the Post system improved and protected [workers’] rights over the past four decades’” – or the opposite?

For decades, we have seen a tug-of-war when it comes to workers’ rights under UK governments, with one party sweeping in to undo the gains progressives have made.

There is a growing recognition this no a coincidence, and nor does it reflect some innate, regressive nature of the British electorate.

Instead, Westminster’s model of government – adversarial, majoritarian, centralised – concentrates power in the hands of the few.

We can see this laid out in practice through the geographical nature of the current system. Disproportionality – the fact that seats don’t match votes – and the focus on small, one-person-takes-all seats means resources are often spread solely on the basis of geographic concerns. (Think the influence of the DUP on spending in Northern Ireland.)

Yet in a PR system, it is issues which achieve recognition —green or feminist arguments can suddenly exert influence in a way that only a regionally-specific ones could have done before.

Projections by the Electoral Reform Society show Labour would now be Westminster’s largest party under the preferential STV system, used for local elections in Scotland. And countries with proportional representation tend to elect more left-wing governments than countries with majoritarian electoral systems.

Instead as socialists we face a simultaneously uplifting but stark reality: in 14 out of the 15 general elections pre-2017, the right have been out-voted. But who won?

This is not something we can hide from – because it is getting worse. Under the proposed new boundaries, the problem of ‘electoral bias’ means the Conservatives will only need a lead of 1.6 per cent to win a majority (less than they won by in 2017) – while Labour will need a lead of more than 8 per cent.

But there’s more to this than party politics: the experience of councils in Scotland, as well as governments across Europe, shows that a more consensual political system (upheld by a fair, proportional voting system – where every vote counts), helps foster a more inclusive political structure. One where unions and civil society are included as key players.

When that happens, it is no wonder that democracies with more inclusive, European-style democratic structures are more progressive – with larger welfare states and lower rates of prison incarceration, and lower economic equality.

As a new report from trade unionists point out, the logic of this is intuitive: different parties have different electorates to satisfy. A broader coalition of parties – dependent on a broader range of support – must therefore satisfy a broader electorate. The result of involving more parties is greater demand for more public investment and more generous social policy.

At a local level, the safe and marginal seat culture created by First Past The Post generates an incentive for governments to direct public funds at a handful of winnable seats rather than towards where the need is greatest – especially when close to an election.

Research shows that candidate campaign spending varies massively depending on the marginality of the constituency. According to a 2013 report by the Electoral Reform Society, the amount of money spent on winning a single vote varies between £3.07 and just 14p.  In a similar way, the marginality of a seat can distort public spending.

Academic have measured the relationship between constituency marginality and grants to English local authorities. A landmark study on the Major government that ministers “allocate around £500 million more to local authorities containing marginal constituencies and around £155 million more to ‘flagship’ local authorities than they could have been expected to get on the criteria of social need and population.” (Ward and John, 1999).

And academics at the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE looked at the relationship between marginal seats and hospital closures between 1997 and 2005. They found “Marginality…has a significant positive impact on the number of hospitals that exist” (Bloom et. al., 2010).

In other words, hospitals in safe seats are more likely to close down than those in ‘swing’ seats.

For unions, there is a clear case for moving from the Westminster model. Indeed, all of the EU countries which have embedded trade union rights, and have high union density and collective bargaining coverage, are democracies which employ proportional electoral systems. When every vote counts, wherever it is cast, workers’ and unions’ political sway increases.

Interestingly, France is the only other country in the EU to use an electoral system which isn’t proportional – and has lower levels of trade union density than the UK, while industry-level agreements often provide only minimum terms.

Whether it is investment in local communities or the policy ‘see-saw’ when it comes to workers’ rights, all these issues are linked: the problem we face is systemic.

And the solution is now gaining traction in the union movement: we need a new approach to politics. A politics for the many.

In January, the STUC unanimously agreed that the balance has shifted when it comes to reform – the burden of proof now falls upon those that want to keep the status quo.

The tide is turning – indeed it was trade unions getting behind electoral reform in New Zealand which helped propel the country’s switch to a proportional system in the 1990s.

With over six million members, unions are the largest democratic organisations in the UK. From our inception, we have embraced the principle that democratic and economic power are not separate things: they are intimately linked.

From the Chartist movement to pushing for devolution in Scotland, unions have often led calls for root-and-branch reform.

Today, there is a new frontier for our movement: transforming the Westminster system.

A ‘whole system’ approach to this change – perhaps through a Constitutional Convention – is gaining momentum in the trade unions and Labour.

To build an economy for the many, we must transform our politics, too. This is the challenge of the left today: to replace Westminster’s broken set-up with a politics for the many.

Nancy Platts is the former trade union advisor to Jeremy Corbyn and is coordinator of Politics for the Many. Read the report and sign up at Politics for the Many.