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Proportional representation: the politics of the many

LYNN HENDERSON explains why unions are backing a radical overhaul of how we do politics

Two weeks ago, a poll revealed the state of distrust in Westminster — ‘lack of faith in politics, politicians and government’ made an unfortunate debut in the top 10 issues for Britain.

Twelve per cent have concerns on this front, making it the ninth-biggest concern of the nation, according to IpsosMori.

It’s a reflection that politics as we know it at Westminster benefits the few. Many of those in the corridors of the Palace of Westminster are seeking personal gains and to help their chums in their elite circles.

To see why radical change at Westminster is so desperately needed it is worth flipping this idea on his head. If politics favours the elite, then it is actively working against the left, workers and unions.

The electoral system and culture it encourages, incentivises parties to create sweeping reforms, setting a new policy direction and even going further and faster in the opposite direction. Nowhere is this more evident than in legislation affecting trade unions.

Law on trade unions in Britain is frequently described as the most restrictive in the western world. As the pendulum of majoritarian government swings between parties, trade union rights have been the target of sweeping reforms.

The list of statutory obligations on unions has grown exponentially as majority governments, some with significant majorities, have sought to restrict and heavily regulate trade union activity.

This is just one of the reasons that Politics For The Many — the trade unionist campaign for democratic reforms — has been working hard at TUC Congress to rally support on the left for change. The voting system has to be part of this with a proportional system required to ensure all voices in society are heard and represented at Westminster.

One of the main points of opposition that we come up against is the idea that a proportional voting system would allow the radical right to infiltrate mainstream politics, but these fears are exaggerated.

Unlike majoritarian systems, proportional systems offer various mechanisms and strategies for preventing or moderating the far-right’s impact on the electoral process. The conciliatory and compromising nature of proportional systems can make it easier to moderate or counter the effects of the far-right.

To work within established institutions, some far-right parties decide to adopt office-seeking strategies, proposing more pragmatic and feasible policies, or toning down their extremist rhetoric. The Norwegian Progress Party, for example, has adopted a more moderate and conciliatory approach after entering government in 2013.

In addition, inclusion in legislative or executive power may decrease the far-right’s “outsider” appeal. Since entering government, the Norwegian Progress Party’s electoral support has slightly decreased in parliamentary elections from a peak of 22.9 per cent in 2009 to 15.3 per cent in 2017.

In other cases, right-populist parties may simply prove unready for the realities of power as when the Pim Fortuyn list dramatically imploded over a period of six months in power in the early 2000s.

Conversely, majoritarian systems like ours can hand the far right absolute power on a weak proportion of the popular vote. The Reform Party in 1990s Canada was opposed to Canadian multiculturalism, dismissive of Quebec and wanted to dismantle support for aborigines.

The party won 52 seats — all of the seats in western Canada — on just 19 per cent of the vote in its first electoral outing in 1993 and became official opposition in 1997.

A proportional voting system is a positive alternative to the current elitist model which saw 22 million votes not count towards the end result at the last General Election.

It would potentially moderate those on the extreme right wing while ruling out the possibility of them gaining an unrepresentatively large place in Parliament.

It is the core of a new political model we must strive for, one which works for the many, not the few.

From the Chartists pushing for universal suffrage to the Scottish TUC role campaigning for a Scottish Parliament, trade unions have often been at the forefront of demands for a better democracy that puts working people at the centre.

We write in the month that, 100 years ago, the Representation of the People Act was passed, extending the right to vote to many women and abolishing the requirement that men must hold property to vote.

Today, there is a new democratic frontier for trade unions in Britain — reforming Westminster’s creaking establishment. From a broken voting system to an unelected House of Lords and denying 16 and 17-year-olds the vote, Parliament is skewed towards a privileged few.

Trade unions exist for workers to stand up against concentrations of power and wealth. Today, our politics concentrates power to a handful of voters in wealthier swing seats, while throwing 22m votes on the electoral scrapheap. That’s a recipe for alienation and distrust.

Democracy is never a finished thing. We have to constantly struggle to remake democracy anew for each generation.

We are proud to launch Politics for the Many — the trade union campaign for political reform.

Nancy Platts – Politics for the Many campaign co-ordinator and former trade union adviser to Jeremy Corbyn

Mark Serwotka — PCS general secretary,

Howard Beckett — assistant general secretary Unite (in a personal capacity),

Billy Hayes — Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform,

Ian Hodson — president BFAWU,

Sam Tarry — political officer TSSA and president of Class,

Mike Kirby — Scottish secretary Unison

If you are involved in a trade union, join us. Add your name at


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