At times of political turmoil democracy feels under threat.
In these terrible times, if democracy is to prevail, we must examine the fairness of how we elect our political representatives.
Electoral reform is not just a debate for constitutional nerds. It is simply about democracy, representation and making our politicians more accountable to the people they serve. As trade unionists that means seeking better and greater representation and voice for our members and our class.
My union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has been for proportional representation since 2008. A growing number of unions are joining the call. Both the TUC and Scottish TUC, thanks to PCS, have policy to examine more proportionate systems for elections to Westminster.
Proportional representation would:
- open space for anti-austerity policies and parties, allowing trade unions to stand up for their members interests
- align the voting system to the scale of opposition to Tory policies, cuts, anti-war and pro NHS campaigns
For me, the demand for PR is about building an alternative to austerity and fighting Tory anti-union laws. Our demands for working class and the women’s franchise and representation were won by organised workers. The TUC investigation must extend debate, not stiffle it.
First Past the Post is busted. The Westminster system stands as an anomaly in these Isles. Each of our devolved administrations, European Members (until now) and local government in Scotland are elected through one system of PR or another.
Challenging the unfair is growing, but too often principles are side-tracked by presumptions. Debating what form of PR we prefer comes later. Confronting politically the populist support for UKIP and the far-right is necessary right now!
In Scotland, there are three parties in Westminster – Tories, Labour and SNP. Until recently, SNP consistently received around a quarter of the Scottish electoral support, and got only a handful of seats few seats in Westminster. The SNP play to the left – anti- war and anti-austerity (even when their own governance in Scotland implements cuts).
In 2015 SNP wiped out all bar one Labour, one Liberal Democrat and one Tory MP under first past the post. Labour had received around 25% of the vote.
Even back in 1997, Scottish Labour’s heyday of the fab fifty MPs only represented 41% of Scottish population.
The Scottish Parliament additional member system is not perfect. Since 1999 gradual shift to voting intelligently and according to immediate concerns, has seen the electorate voting tactically on the List rather than for tribal party blocks. It was only in 2003 that Scottish Labour hung on to power, with Greens and Socialist combining 13 seats to the left of Labour. SNP then were to the right.
In Westminster, the Tory majority government commands a mandate from only 24% of the electorate. A wider malaise in these anti-politics times allows Trump and Farage to present as anti-establishment while voter participation dwindles.
Willie Sullivan, Scottish director of the Electoral Reform Society in his 2014 “Missing Scotland” book looked at why over a million Scots don’t vote. He found that people do care deeply about issues. They just don’t see the politicians as representing them or capable of, or willing to bring about change.
The crux of the problem is that First Past the Post draws two main parties to the centre. Both chase middle ground voters in marginal seats, rather than consolidating the core vote, or class base.
Beneficiaries of change are not just small parties. Labour can gain significantly. Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell leads Labour’s constitutional convention. SNP, LibDems and UKIP all support PR. Across Europe, PR has provided space for Left Bloc in Portugal, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.
The winds of change in politics are blowing. Our movement must lead workers to re-engage as citizens to defeat the populist far right.
PR is not a magic bullet but perhaps a trigger for a better way.