Keir (Hardie) was a strong supporter of electoral reform

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 24th January 2020

Labour, from its beginnings 100 years ago has promoted democratic reform.

Keir Hardie was a supporter of the Electoral Reform Society (then called the Proportional Representation Society). Hardie, a leading Scottish socialist, helped found the independent labour party in 1893 and was the first chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1900. He and other early Labour leaders knew that social justice and democratic fairness go hand in hand.

The Labour movement in Scotland took a lead in advocating voting reform. In 1910, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in Scotland were among the first unions to use the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of proportional representation for their internal elections, and by the end of the decade the TUC, the Miners Federation, the National Union of Railwaymen, the National Union of Clerks and the Co-operative Union were all using the Single Transferable Vote.

In 1912, the Scottish Trades Union Congress sought  reform of the voting system for public elections – a position which had been adopted by the TUC the previous year – by passing, without dissent, a resolution which stated that:

“no scheme of Electoral Reform could be considered  complete that does not include proportional represenation”

The Independent Labour Party (ILP), was one of the constituent parts of the new Labour Party (then called the Labour Representation Committee) which individuals could join. It’s leading members included Scottish socialists such as Keir Hardie, Jenny Lee, Jimmy Maxton and John Wheatley. At its 1913 conference, the ILP decided by “a large majority” that:

“no system of election can be satisfactory which does not give opportunity to all parties to obtain representation in proportion to their voting strength”

An amendment to water down the ILP’s commitment to proportional representation was defeated by 193 votes to 12.

Proportional representation for local government elections became Labour policy in 1918 when the Glasgow Trades Council successfully moved an amendment to a Labour conference resolution calling for local councils to be elected on a proportional basis.  Although this Labour Party demand was not met, from 1918 the Education Authorities in Scotland were elected by STV (until their responsibilities were transferred to local councils in 1928).

Throughout the 1920s, however, Labour under the leadership of Ramsey MacDonald, moved away from electoral reform. Ramsey MacDonald went on to head a National Government dominated by the Conservative Party and supported by only a few Labour members. MacDonald was later expelled from the party he had helped to found.

As Labour members set about electing their new leader, it might be worth drawing inspiration from the values and principles of one of the founders of their party.

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