Four reasons why trade unionists are backing a shake-up of Westminster’s political system

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive

Posted on the 16th April 2018

Today is an important milestone in the broad campaign for political reform: the movement has won fresh civil society support. 

A new report from campaigners ‘Politics For The Many’ is calling for a shift in the UK’s political set-up – away from the adversarial, centralised Westminster model, to a more inclusive and pluralistic ‘consensual model’. And key figures in the trade union movement are backing it.

What does that mean in practice? They are campaigning for democratic changes including an elected House of Lords, a fair voting system where seats match votes, and extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds across all elections.

The campaigners have some high-profile backing, with supporters including Jeremy Corbyn’s former trade union adviser Nancy Platts; STUC Vice President Lynn Henderson, PCS General Secretary, Mark Serwotka, and Unite Assistant General Secretary, Howard Beckett.

Today, the group has launched a report setting out the case. Here are four key reasons why Westminster’s voting system is irreconcilable with the principles of the trade union movement:

1. A fairer voting system is good for social outcomes

One of the major problems with First Past The Post is that, in many parts of the country, it creates a safe seat culture whereby there is little or no chance of the incumbent party being ousted.

This means that nearly all campaign efforts – and a great deal of public money – heavily targets marginal seats whereby the incumbent has a smaller majority. In the process, millions of voters in so-called ‘safe seats’ are left to wither on the vine.

This matters for our economy too, as outlined in an anecdote reported in the New Statesman last month: “One Tory minister in a safe seat told me that when she used to ask Osborne for something [such as new investment], he would first ask her how big her majority was – and then reply, with a smile, that it was too large for her enquiry to be worth considering.”

So if you are fortunate enough to live in a marginal constituency it is likely politicians will invest a significant amount of time and resources in your area – they have the clear political motivation to do so.

But if you live in a safe seat, you may end up being, comparatively at least, neglected.

This theory is backed up by academic research which has found that central government grants to English local authorities have been greater to local authorities containing marginal constituencies than would be expected on the basis of social need and population.

Similarly, a relationship between areas with marginal seats and fewer hospital closures has been established.

The Electoral Reform Society’s preferred voting system (Single Transferable Vote) resolves this by having proportionally-elected multi-member constituencies, meaning nowhere is ‘off limits’ for certain parties.

2. The Westminster system is bad for trade unionism

The current voting system hands governments disproportionate levels of power compared to their share of their vote.

And the two-party dominance we see in the Westminster system creates a see-saw effect – where a newly elected government is able to introduce sweeping reforms which undo the work of previous regimes.

The report argues this negative dynamic is felt strongly when it comes to legislation affecting trade unions – with the list of statutory obligations on unions growing exponentially as governments have played ‘ping pong’ with union rights.

3. The Westminster system is biased   

If an election was held today, and the two leading UK parties attracted the exact same number of votes, it does not follow that they would both secure the same number of seats in the House of Commons.

That’s because of the fact party support is not spread evenly across the UK and that First Past The Post allows for only one MP per constituency.

The bias in the system can even result in ‘wrong winner’ elections as in 1951 when Labour won the most votes (48.8% vs. 48.0% for the Conservatives) but the Conservatives won a parliamentary majority.

And in the February election in 1974, no party got more than half the seats and Labour had 301 seats to 297 for the Conservatives – despite the Conservatives beating Labour in votes by 0.7%.

As we have pointed out, there is a strong chance this scenario could happen again soon.

4. The Westminster system is bad for equality

Earlier this year the Electoral Reform Society published the results of its ‘seat blocking’ research which found that dozens of seats in the House of Commons are effectively ‘reserved’ by incumbent men.

Of the 212 currently-serving MPs first elected in 2005 or before, just 42 (20%) are women. In contrast, of the MPs remaining who were first elected in 2015, there is near gender parity – 45% are women.

The prevalence of ‘safe seats’ under Westminster’s voting system, means that once a seat is in an MP’s hands, it may be theirs for decades.

Systems with proportional electoral systems are generally much more representative (given the majority of union members are now women, this matters for trade unionists).

It’s fantastic to see more allies in the campaign for real democratic reform – and with good timing. As the Scottish Trade Union Congress meets for its annual gathering, the STUC has taken the view that the burden of proof has shifted when it comes to reform: the momentum is with those who seek change, not those who support the status quo.

The calls for a new democratic settlement are growing every day. Pretty soon, Westminster will have to listen.

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