Trade unionists demand reform of ‘rigged’ Westminster voting system

By agency reporter
April 17, 2018

Trade unionists have thrown down a challenge to Westminster’s political set-up, as leading activists launch a new report setting out the need for change. 

As leading delegates gather for the Scottish Trade Union Congress, figures including STUC Vice President Lynn Henderson and Unite Assistant General Secretary Howard Beckett have thrown their weight behind calls for reform.

Politics for the Many: The Trade Union Case for Political Reform is a challenge for the wider movement to back a proportional voting system for Westminster, following in Scotland’s footsteps.

The report calls for paolitical parties including the UK Labour leadership, which has been dragging its feet on the issue, to back fair votes and ‘fix the broken political model’.

It comes after the STUC dropped its historic opposition to electoral reform earlier this year – with Congress deciding the ‘burden of proof now rests with those who defend the status quo’. 

The report argues:

  • The Westminster political model has allowed for sweeping legislation to continually strip back trade union rights in the UK – while locking unions out of involvement in government, in contrast to much of Europe
  • The Westminster voting system is increasingly working against the progressive majority from forming the next government
  • Proportional representation is linked to greater economic equality and better social outcomes

Analysis shows that under the proposed new boundaries, electoral bias against the left 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 eight per cent.

Unlike elections in Northern Ireland, the Welsh Assembly, Holyrood or Scottish councils, Westminster elections still use ‘First Past the Post’. Most developed democracies use proportional voting systems.

The group are calling for a UK-wide ‘constitutional convention’ involving citizens and civil society, to pave the way for a new democratic settlement. 

Westminster’s ‘broken’ system means up to 1.8 million Scottish votes were ‘wasted’ in last year’s General Election because they had no impact on the result, according to ERS research. 

Last month campaigners slammed Westminster’s voting system as ‘absurd and undemocratic’, after influential election website Electoral Calculus projected Labour would secure more votes but fewer seats than the Conservatives in Scotland if a General Election were held now.

The Electoral Calculus projections followed UK-wide analysis predicting the Conservatives would win 40.5 per cent of the vote and 297 seats, whereas Labour would win just 279 seats on 40.7 per cent of the vote – resulting in a situation where one party wins the most votes yet the other party wins the most seats.

Campaigners say the analysis shows ‘Westminster’s outdated electoral system is failing at its most basic requirement’.

STUC Vice President Lynn Henderson, author of the foreword to the report, said, “There is increasing momentum for change within the labour movement – not least in Scotland – and this report is the latest example of that. Extending Scotland’s proportional voting system to Westminster is vital in building a truly ‘kinder, gentler’ politics.

“From the calls of the Chartists to pushing for devolution, unions have long been at the forefront of demands for a better democracy. Today, there is a new democratic frontier for trade unions in Britain: electoral reform.

“I am proud to launch this report here in Scotland – now let’s extend this message across the UK and to the heart of Westminster.”

Nancy Platts, Politics for the Many coordinator and former trade union advisor to Jeremy Corbyn, said: “A new democratic settlement with a fair voting system is vital for the change we need in this country – and it is the latest battleground in the struggle for workers’ rights. More and more figures in the labour movement are joining the campaign.

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

“Moving away from the outdated Westminster model to a more consensual form of politics is vital in tackling that and fixing our broken political system. We need to bring an end to the ‘safe seat’ culture and boosting opportunities for women in politics – and moving to a proportional voting system is at the heart of that.

“If we truly believe in the redistribution of wealth and power then we need a political system which reflects that – with political equality alongside economic equality.”

Howard Beckett, Unite the Union’s Assistant General Secretary, said: “For trade unionists in Scotland and across the UK, the harsh reality is that under Westminster’s broken system, any gains from a Labour government can be quickly reversed – with rights stripped away.

“First Past the Post is not working in workers’ interests – it is skewing our economy and leaving swathes of the country to wither on the vine.

“Proportional system, as used in most advanced democracies can help bring about a fundamental shift in the culture of politics – moving from an adversarial approach towards a more consensual model where unions and civil society are genuinely heard.

“And there is evidence from around the world which shows how a proportional voting system is good for social outcomes, so it’s no surprise that unions are coming on board. It’s time for a politics of the many, not the few.”

Willie Sullivan, Director of Electoral Reform Society Scotland (Senior Director, ERS UK), said: “For too long the Westminster system has been failing our democracy. From throwing millions of votes onto the electoral scrapheap to skewing where resources are directed in our economy, we cannot continue with things as they are.

“Trade unions have a proud history of leading calls for democratic reform, and it is fantastic many in the movement are now leading calls for a new political settlement.

“Westminster’s rigged voting system is holding back progress. It’s time for a more representative Parliament, where every vote counts, wherever they are cast. This report is a pivotal moment in the push for fair votes, as more voices join the calls for change.”

Politics for the Many is a new campaign to call for unions to back ‘root and branch democratic reform’, including proportional representation.

* Read Politics for the Many: the trade union case for political reform here

* Politics for the Many https://politicsforthemany.co.uk/

* Electoral Reform Society https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

Ekklesia director Simon Barrow is a delegate at the STUC meeting in Aviemore from 16-18 April 2018.

[Ekk/6]

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.