Now is the time to take a lead on electoral reform
PCS has supported proportional representation (PR) since 2008 on the basis that these electoral systems open up a space for anti-austerity policies and parties and enable trade unions to better stand up for the interests of our members.
The call for PR traditionally came from minor parties who understandably felt cheated by the UK’s first past the post (FPTP) system. Now, with the old two-party system fragmenting, the rise of the SNP and changes in the Labour Party, it is more important than ever that we have a truly proportional system that reflects and represents the scale of opposition to austerity, privatisation and cuts in the country.
Since the general election, the government’s majority has allowed it to pursue austerity and attack the trade union movement, despite winning with the votes of just 24.4% of the electorate. While it is vital the unions continue to fight against these measures and any future attacks, we must also tackle our unrepresentative electoral system that enables these regressive policies.
The Electoral Reform Society described the 2015 election “the most disproportionate result in British history”, with huge differences in the number of seats won by parties and their share of the vote. Support for PR is no longer a marginal issue as its opponents – and defenders of the status quo – often claim. There is growing public opposition to the current system that supresses anti-austerity policies and silences many people who are desperate for an alternative.
Recent research shows that 57% agree with the principle that “the number of seats a party gets should broadly reflect its proportion of the total votes cast” with just 9% disagreeing. Over half said they were “unhappy with the current electoral system and want it to change”.
It is clear that a new response is needed from the labour movement that reflects this change, and one that also reflects the changes that have taken place within the Labour Party in the last year. We hope Labour is becoming an anti-austerity party – now it is time we had a fair and democratic electoral system that is able to represent public support.
The shadow chancellor John McDonnell has long supported PR, and Jeremy Corbyn has committed Labour to a constitutional convention which promises to look at our electoral system.
The referendum in 2011 did not offer a proportional system and understandably failed to inspire much enthusiasm. Westminster looks increasingly out of touch, as millions of people have used proportional electoral systems for years in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, European elections and for the London Assembly.
Where more progressive policies have been implemented in the UK – such as scrapping prescription charges or tuition fees, or not introducing academy schools or foundation hospitals – it is where there are devolved governments elected by proportional representation.
PR is not a magic bullet – the problems of political disengagement and apathy go beyond the voting system, and there are practical details to be worked out. It is vital that any new system maintains a constituency link, and ensures that the accountability of politicians to the people they represent is strengthened. But it is clear that electoral reform could be a key part of unlocking Britain’s closed political system – and that can only be good news for the labour movement.
This is a campaign for truly democratic representation that should unite our movement. PR has the potential to open up politics, increase engagement, provide the space for alternatives to austerity to be heard and to increase the chances of anti-austerity parties and politicians achieving power.
Now is the time for us to take the lead on this issue as we have so successfully with many other progressive causes in the past.
Read the TUC’s full report “Getting it in Proportion? Trade unions and electoral reform“.