Unite union supports PR, Socialists should do the same

Dave Kellaway argues that P.R must be supported by all socialists.


If you talked to anyone in the broad or radical left in Europe today you would find it very difficult to find anybody arguing for the return, or introduction, of an undemocratic first past the post electoral system. Usually, they will be in favour of making their often limited proportional representation (PR) systems more democratic by getting rid of restrictive minimum thresholds or two round systems. You will not see people looking enviously at the British system because it guarantees strong Labour governments able to carry out their policies unencumbered by the risks of alliances created by PR systems. Neither will they hanker after the British system that supposedly confers a democratic, close relationship between a local MP and their geographical constituency.

One of the problems socialists have had in arguing for the obvious benefits of a fairer system is that right, centrist or moderate currents in the Labour movement argue for it because it will help achieve government alliances with the Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists and/or the Greens. Compass is a group that has this position. It would end what they see as narrow Labour tribalism and make it very hard for a right-wing Tory party to stay in power for decades with less than 50% of the popular vote.  If you reject any idea of a radical Labour government that even minimally challenges the power of capital as was the case with Corbyn then this perspective is quite logical.

Indeed the overlap between Lib Dem policies and a moderate Labour manifesto is pretty clear and even the personal ideology and inclinations of most of the respective leaderships make it surprising that Labour leaders have not been keener on the alliance idea. The two-party British culture still weighs heavily on their perspective. These political elites each want to hold on to any available positions and power. The recent collaboration of the Lib Dems with the Cameron government and its austerity policy makes it difficult too. However, Labour leaderships have allied with the Lib Dems before – Callaghan’s Lib/Lab pact in 1977/8 comes to mind.

Opposition by the Labour leadership to such alliances is not based on any principled opposition to collaboration because it would soften Labour’s radical policies or make it work alongside the bosses to manage capitalism. When Labour becomes the government it keeps the rule of capital going quite smoothly on its own without the need of any ally constraining it. Historically the trade unions affiliated to Labour are rightly suspicious of the Lib Dems wanting to restrict their rights to organise -even if Blair never repealed Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws.

As socialists, we are not in favour of government alliances with the Lib Dems. We argue for PR on its merits. It means all votes count and it is much more difficult for a right-wing party with only 42% of the vote to continually remain in power.  Safe seats which never change hands kill a lot of meaningful political activity. Why bother to vote or organise support if you will never win. All resources and efforts are put into the hundred and fifty or so marginal seats where elections are won or lost. Abstention is particularly high in Britain compared to other countries with PR.

New parties can emerge and have a chance to become established under PR. Political debate, particularly on the media, is today largely restricted to the two main parties. Anyone living in a European country with PR will notice that more parties have voices in the debate, often including radical left or green currents. In England with a First Past the Post system (FPTP) you can see that both in the Tory and Labour parties quite distinct currents have been kept artificially inside the same parties. Apart from the Corbyn interlude, the boast about a broad church where left and right have an equal say is a convenient myth, the Vicar has always decided on the hymns to sing.

When asked recently about new left currents or parties emerging, given the defeat of the Corbyn project and the Starmer witchhunt/crackdown on the left,  John McDonnell was careful not to commit himself but did raise the FPTP system as a general constraint on developments. He is right.  It limits the tactical options of the radical left and also blocks the whole British institutional system. A lot of the Labour left is keeping its head down and fighting a rearguard action on policy and saving positions. It shows how the ‘broad church’ is run. If the alternative outside Labour is so difficult then retreat appears more logical to many good activists.

On the other hand, some of those radical groups outside of Labour do not seem all that bothered about the electoral system and have not campaigned on PR. It seems that the priority commitment to mass struggle in the streets and workplaces overrides any discussions about electoral systems. If we think elections are a bit secondary anyway then why bother to discuss the political implications of different ones?

Inside Labour, some of the currents associated with the Morning Star/Broad Left tradition also appear to be lukewarm on the PR issue. The well-established Campaign for Labour Party Democracy has also been behind the curve on this question. It called for a vote against the PR motion at the conference. Its leader Andrew Gwynne argued that Labour wins more MEP seats in the North West with FPTP and since he is not in favour of losing seats he is against PR… Perhaps he should look a bit further afield where Labour does not have an inbuilt FPTP majority.

Gwynne also raised the issue of fascist type MPs being elected. This is an old red herring as though you defeat fascists by hiding behind anti-democratic electoral systems. You cannot ignore support for fascists or pretend they have no support. It is better to have an accurate understanding of their support in order to fight them. Nobody on the left in Europe argues that post-fascist groups like Meloni’s Brothers of Italy or Marie Le Pen’s party should be banned from standing or that you should give up PR in order to defeat them.

If socialists are going to really change society we cannot be content with just getting over the line of the 40 odd per cent that allows you to get an artificial majority in the number of seats. How will you be able to mobilise millions of people to challenge the rule of capital to end poverty or save the planet if you fail to win 60% of the population to your ideas? To win a big majority under PR you would perhaps need an alliance but this could be a much more positive one between a Labour party, a party to its left and Green currents.

Labour has supported PR in elections in Wales and Scotland as well as for internal elections but apparently this is not good enough for the people as a whole when their government is elected. Inside the Unions, there is a mixture of systems for internal elections but even here the tide is moving towards a fairer PR one.

Recently the campaign on PR, which is being organised both inside Labour and across all political parties, has made two significant steps forward. First, Labour party constituency delegates voted 80% in favour of PR but it fell because of union opposition.  Starmer refused to state a position but clearly indicated to the affiliated organisations and trade unions that he wanted the motion defeated. This was despite expressing openness to electoral change during his leadership campaign. Like his famous 10 pledges of continuity with Corbyn’s policies,  this was just the usual electioneering. Second, one of two big unions, Unite, voted to examine alternatives to FPTP. Sharon Graham, the surprise victor in the recent leadership contest nailed her colours to the PR mast too:

“Today, Unite policy conference voted to support proportional representation for the first time in our history. Our members across this union already use PR to elect their representatives – it is high time that Westminster caught up. Our political class has failed working people and our system is broken. It is time to change our democracy.”

Sharon graham

Already – if the membership vote stayed the same – this would mean a victory for a PR position if a re-run were allowed next year.  In fact, if it was not for Covid this Unite vote might have happened before the Labour conference. The campaign is continuing in other unions like Unison, which has a  new left majority on the executive, to get pro-PR motions through. Of course, Starmer and the Labour leadership could still just ignore any conference motion like it does on Palestine, the £15 minimum wage or common ownership of energy utilities.  Nevertheless, momentum would be shifting to the PR side.

While we argue that FPTP is anti-democratic and a tactical constraint on the left this does not mean that the converse is true – that just having a PR system resolves the problem of winning a majority for a challenge to the rule of capital or even for a socialist alternative. In France, Italy and the Spanish state there are forms of PR but in all countries, a class struggle wing or radical left is not on the rise. In fact, the contrary is the case. 

In Italy, the radical left has been absent from Parliament since 2008. In France the current led by Melenchon is struggling to repeat the double-digit scores from past presidential elections and groups to his left may get just a few per cent. In the Spanish State, a radical left current like Unidad Podemos (United We Can) is now in government with the social democratic PSOE (Socialist Workers Party) and has lost electoral support. In Portugal, the Social Democratic-led government was elected with political support from the radical left but has just fallen and the left may find it hard to maintain the good score it made previously.  As can be seen, PR does not give you a free pass to building a mass socialist alternative current but at least, apart from Italy, all these currents have visibility and an audience that is greater than exists in Britain.

What you can do to get PR done

  • Support the various campaigns, such as Get PR Done or Labour for a New Democracy.
  • Get your political organisation or Labour party branch to support or affiliate to these campaigns
  • Organise in your union to get motions on PR passed, the Unite one is a good model (see below)

Appendix – the Unite motion:

There is a consensus among experts that First Past the Post has a strong right-wing bias wherever it is used, leading to parliaments and governments that are on average much more right-wing than the voters.

This corresponds exactly with the UK’s experience. Most votes went to parties to the left of the Conservatives in 18 of the last 19 general elections, yet the Tories have been in power for 63% of this time. Instead of building a society ‘for the many’, this has created one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, with some of the most restrictive trade union laws.

Conference notes that whilst Labour won more than 10 million votes in the 2019 General Election (more than Tony Blair received when he won in 2005), Labour nonetheless lost 54 seats to the Tories, giving them a large parliamentary majority. Conference further notes that the UK is one of only three major developed countries to use a First Past the Post voting system for general elections. Proportional voting systems are used in many other UK elections.

Conference believes we need a Labour government to reshape society in the interests of workers and our communities. But it is imperative to realise that the current voting system offers no protection against later Conservative governments tearing up these hard-fought gains as they have in the past. The world’s most equal and progressive societies all use forms of proportional representation which prevent rule by a right‐wing minority and lock in the hard‐won victories of their Labour movements.

Opinion polling from just before the General Election found that 76% of Labour members believe the party should back a change in the voting system, with just 12% opposed. We believe that the time is right to campaign for change.

Conference therefore resolves:

  • to adopt a policy of opposing First Past the Post and instead supporting moves to explore, select and introduce a new voting system for the UK
  • to hold regional educational events to give members information about how different electoral systems can enable or hinder the left of politics, and how they impact on the kind of policies and outcomes a society ends up with, and to promote debate and discussion amongst members
  • to ask the Executive Council to consider reports back from these events which include feedback from members
  • to call for the Labour Party to support moves to explore, select and introduce a new voting system, to promote discussion and education amongst its membership, and to commit to including the voting system for general elections in the remit of its planned constitutional convention.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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