British trade unions would do well to back proportional representation

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Rules matter. The UK’s long commitment to a highly disproportional ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system impacts on the politics we get – amplifying the voices of the two largest parties while marginalising almost everyone else. For a long time these rules looked set in stone. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour seemed keen to alter a system that served their interests. But change may now be in the air – growing awareness of the benefits of proportional representation (PR) is shifting the balance of opinion within Labour’s ‘big tent’. This summer may help tip the balance in favour of electoral reforms which could transform Westminster politics.

Labour’s membership already made their views on the matter clear at last year’s party conference. Hundreds of local constituency parties passed resolutions in favour of PR, and 80% of constituency delegates voted for it on the conference floor. The main opposition to change came from the trade unions, which make up half the delegates to Labour conference. The votes of the five smaller unions that backed PR constitute only a tiny proportion of the overall union vote. Two of the three largest unions (Unite and GMB) voted against PR whilst the third (UNISON) abstained. The motion therefore fell.

Yet it seems that was far from the end of the story. Just a month later, Unite adopted policy opposing the first-past-the-post system at its own conference – a move warmly welcomed by Unite’s general secretary Sharon Graham. Then, two months ago, the Communications Workers’ Union passed a motion that criticised the current system as “undemocratic” and set up a forum to review its policy. The union view on our electoral system is changing.

More change may be on the way soon. Labour affiliated trade unions, including UNISON, are gathering for their own annual conferences. The decisions they make will determine how they use their sizeable votes during key debates on electoral reform in September. These shifts in trade union positions could fundamentally shift the balance of opinion on electoral reform within Labour’s big tent. If the two largest trade unions – Unite and UNISON – join Labour’s membership in backing electoral reform, the prospects of committing Labour to changes in the electoral rules at September’s conference would be the brightest in a generation. And with Labour currently ahead in the polls, that commitment could open the way to fundamental change of electoral rules in the next parliament.

Electoral reform may seem removed from the day to day work of trade unions, but the electoral rules matter a lot for the political context in which they operate. Comparative politics researchers have found that more proportional electoral systems are associated with a range of progressive outcomes – from greater representation of women and ethnic minorities to greater income equality, more redistributive welfare spending and strong rights for workers.

These differences are in part a consequence of the longstanding and well-documented tendency for first-past-the-post systems to advantage right-wing parties; a bias resulting from geography and psychology. Left-of-centre voters tend to cluster together in ‘safe’ seats while right of centre voters are more evenly spread – under a first-past-the-post system, this advantages the right. First past the post also shifts voter psychology. In particular, risk-averse, middle-income voters are often willing to back centre-left coalitions under PR but less willing to back the left in an all-or-nothing, winner-takes-all contest. The cumulative effect of these factors is substantial: countries with first-past-the-post systems tend to have right-of-centre governments two-thirds of the time, even though left-wing and right-wing parties receive a similar average vote share over the long run.

Proportional electoral systems also deliver better results on causes close to trade unionists’ hearts. Proportional democracies tend to have higher levels of union membership, coverage and influence – and more progressive union and workers’ rights legislation. The International Trade Union Confederation’s annual index of labour rights provides a striking illustration of this. All of the developed democracies they rate the highest use some form of PR while those with winner-takes-all systems – the UK, US, Canada and Australia – are all categorised as either “regular” or “systematic” violators of workers’ rights.

The experience of trade unions in New Zealand, which replaced first past the post with a form of PR in 1996, provides an interesting case study of how a shift to a more proportional system can work to the advantage of organised labour. Electoral reform has altered the balance of power between the two largest New Zealand parties. The centre-right National Party governed for 74% of the time in the 47 years before reform was introduced. In the 26 years since, the centre-left Labour Party has governed more than half of the time.

The introduction of PR not only shifted the balance of power leftwards, but also emboldened New Zealand’s Labour Party to take a more pro-union position. New Zealand’s last governments under its first-past-the-post system – like the last UK Labour government – never repealed the punitive trade union laws that they inherited. Analysis shows however that there was a dramatic rise in the number of positive mentions of trade unions and workers’ rights appearing in Labour manifestos following electoral reform. In 1999, under PR, a Labour government repealed the trade union legislation imposed by the National Party under the first-past-the-post system. Since 2000, New Zealand Labour has introduced legislation on paid parental leave, equal employment opportunities, rest breaks and breastfeeding and flexible working relations.

PR has returned New Zealand’s workers, and their working conditions, to the heart of the national conversation – and in some respects has even rebuilt the relationship between the Kiwi Labour Party and New Zealand trade unions. Electoral rules is too important a cause to leave to psephological pedants and politics professors. New Zealand shows how reform to the voting system can renew and revitalise progressive politics. It is a cause Britain’s trade unions would do well to embrace.

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