Theme: Political Economy | Content Type: Digested Read

Labour, the Unions and Proportional Representation

Cameron Rhys Herbert



| 8 mins read

The Labour Party would be a vital component of any attempt to change the voting system. But while Labour's membership appears increasingly to support the principle of PR, leadership has been more sceptical. In 2022, resulting from an effective grassroots campaign, the Constituency Labour Party (CLP) and trade union delegates backed a resolution calling for Labour to change the voting system.

What are the origins and evolution of this movement, focussing on the trade unions? And what are the implications of the changing position of Labour's affiliated unions for the future of electoral reform in the UK?

The unions and the constitution

The trade unions are often identified as an important factor in understanding Labour's historic constitutional conservatism, including its sceptical view of changing the voting system. However, unions have not always opposed PR. In 1912, the members of the Trades Union Congress’ (TUC) parliamentary committee personally lobbied the prime minister to include PR in an upcoming reform bill, for example.

By contrast, Labour's political leaders in Parliament, and party intellectuals, appear to have been much more sceptical of PR. Those opposed to electoral reform won the debate and appear to have won over the unions too.

To the extent that trade unions have held any reservations about PR over and above those of the parliamentary party, there are two strands. The first is a suspicion that structural changes affecting Labour, or the political system more generally, may (deliberately or unintentionally) undermine the political interests of organised labour.7 Second, many socialists within the unions were also strongly influenced by the argument advanced by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) that single-member constituencies provided a vital foothold for the left.

Changing views

The impetus for a reignited debate about PR on the left emerged in the late 1980s when the political dominance of Thatcherism began seriously to challenge the confidence of many in the benefits of the British constitution. In this period, campaign groups like the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER) and Charter 88 were lobbying and campaigning.

While interest in electoral reform declined after Labour's victory in 1997, many in the unions continued to see constitutional change as a potential political solution to reversing two decades of decline. Indeed, in the 2000s, several trade unions with left-wing, anti-Blair leaders, including the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) endorsed PR.

Rising support for reform

After 2015, the Conservatives had won two elections in a row and used the Commons majority to force through a number of controversial measures, in particular Brexit. The use of FPTP was increasingly perceived to reflect a significant systemic flaw by opponents. Indeed, a recent report of the British Social Attitudes Survey shows that support for changing the electoral system to PR, which had hovered around 35 per cent since 1983, increased to 45 per cent in 2015 and in 2021 rose to 51 per cent—the first time it has had majority support in forty years. Brexit, and Labour party identification, was strongly linked to the rise in support for PR.

This context was vital in sustaining a wave of grassroots PR activism, which began seriously in 2015 with the start of the group Make Votes Matter.

Make Votes Matter

Dismayed at the 2015 Conservatives majority, sixteen year-old Owen Winter created a petition on 220,000 people signed his petition in one month, eventually leading to a permanent grassroots advocacy organisation: Make Votes Matter (MVM).

The group had three strategic foci. First, to create a movement with local groups and to demonstrate that PR was an issue of public interest. Second, to build a coalition of groups supporting PR that could expand MVM's reach and supplement its grassroots base. Third, to work with political parties, particularly Labour.

However, Labour members are often sceptical of cross-party groupings. More practically, a change to Labour policy would necessitate the involvement of the affiliated trade unions, which hold nearly 50 per cent of the votes at the party conference. During work with the trade unions a grassroots strategy, which would later be used to significant effect by L4ND, was developed. Active canvassing of MVM members within the trade unions motivated many members who were not previously active in their unions, leading to a sustained campaign capable of passing branch motions nationwide.

Labour for a New Democracy

Despite MVM's success, the problem remained that its reach within Labour was limited. This was the catalyst for the launch in 2020 of Labour for a New Democracy, campaigning for the Labour Party to commit to introducing PR on multiple fronts.

The 2021 Labour Party conference saw 153 submissions on PR—a record number for any issue. Over 80 per cent of CLP delegates voted in favour of the PR motion at the 2021 conference, the union vote was 95 per cent against. It was not until the following year, after a number of trade unions had adopted policies on PR, that the conference would commit to backing reform.

Politics for the Many and the trade union campaign

By the 2022 Labour conference, two of the ‘big five’ affiliated trade unions, Unite and UNISON, backed reform, while the CWU adopted a position condemning FPTP. The trade union campaign was led by Politics for the Many, established in 2017.

The organisation found only limited enthusiasm amongst officials and its primary organising model focussed on the grassroots. As such, the campaign's success depended upon access to participatory mechanisms. It tended to be stronger and more accessible to access in the smaller, more homogeneous unions. The challenge was greatest in the large general unions. The motion on PR, submitted to Labour's 2022 conference, was the most popular issue among the CLPs for the second year running.

Where next?

PR remains far from being enacted or even included in a Labour manifesto in the short term. Indeed, the day before the conference motion passed, Keir Starmer asserted that Labour would not prioritise electoral reform. the support of the trade unions has likely bolstered the prestige of this campaign amongst Labour's MPs.

The major PR campaigns face challenges moving forward. There is no consensus among activists over the kind of PR system which should be introduced, or by what process it could be enacted.

The scale of support and sense of feeling makes it highly plausible that PR will remain an issue of significant interest within the Labour Party in the next generation.

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  • Cameron Rhys Herbert

    Cameron Rhys Herbert is a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, working on the history of trade unions in British politics.

    Articles by Cameron Rhys Herbert