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Majority of Labour-Linked Trade Unions Now Back Electoral Reform After Shop Workers Call for PR

Keir Starmer has refused to back changing the voting system – but calls to do so are becoming difficult to ignore, Josiah Mortimer reports

Labour Leader Keir Starmer. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA/Alamy

Majority of Labour-Linked Trade Unions Now Back Electoral Reform After Shop Workers Call for PR

Keir Starmer has refused to back changing the voting system – but calls to do so are becoming difficult to ignore, Josiah Mortimer reports

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Two-thirds of trade unions that support the Labour Party now back a major change to Westminster’s voting system, after shop workers’ union USDAW became the latest to throw its weight behind the campaign. 

Delegates at the union’s Annual Delegate Meeting yesterday backed a motion calling on USDAW to “support the introduction of proportional representation for general elections, to protect and improve democracy in the UK”. 

The move marks a big boost for the Labour campaign for electoral reform, after a sweep of general elections in which progressive parties won the most votes but a minority of seats in the House of Commons. 

Nearly 23 million votes did not count towards electing people’s MP in 2019, according to Electoral Reform Society analysis, a result that was branded “disenfranchisement on an industrial scale”.

Labour delegates overwhelmingly backed PR at last year’s party conference – after mega-unions Unison and Unite supported the shift. But Labour Leader Keir Starmer has refused to commit to changing the system, despite noting during his leadership campaign that many people felt their votes didn’t count under the one-party-takes-all voting system currently in place.

USDAW represents around 350,000 workers, largely in supermarkets, distribution and food manufacturing. It is often seen as being on the right of the Labour Party – meaning support for PR is now wide-ranging, alongside left-wing unions ASLEF and the Fire Brigades Union.

Campaigners have welcomed it as evidence of a “clear and growing demand” for PR across the trade union and Labour movement. 

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A move to a PR could involve switching to the Scottish Parliament’s Additional Member System, which ‘tops up’ First Past the Post results with proportional list seats to make results more reflective of votes. Or it could involve Ireland’s Single Transferable Vote system, which would give voters a number of local MPs rather than just one, with the ability to rank candidates by preference. 

The vote comes as Labour’s National Policy Forum considers the party’s platform ahead of the next general election. A recent consultation saw submissions on PR making up the single biggest issue. 

Two-thirds of local parties’ responses to the commission responsible for constitutional issues called for PR, along with 44% of submissions on all policy areas, according to the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. 

Dave McCrossen, USDAW deputy general secretary, said: “We’ve had years of one-party minority rule in the UK with Tory governments handed huge majorities without majority support from voters and that needs to change.

“There is no such thing as a wasted vote under PR. It’s a fairer system that would give greater voice to the needs of ordinary working people and strengthen their influence in Westminster – something our current system has for too long been a barrier to.”

Caroline Osborne, of the Labour for a New Democracy group, pointed out that Labour Conference already voted “overwhelmingly” for a manifesto commitment to introducing PR and that “with USDAW also joining these calls, there is now an undeniable consensus for a new electoral system”. 

“These calls for reform cannot be ignored,” she said. 

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Tactical voting and electoral pacts also dominate First Past the Post elections. YouGov polling after the 2019 elections found that one in every three voters (32%) chose to vote tactically, instead of choosing their preferred party or candidate. 

Lynn Henderson, chair of the union-facing campaign Politics for the Many, said trade unionists have “always stood at the front of the battle for democratic rights in the UK” – from the Chartist movement for extending the franchise to campaigns for devolution. 

For Willie Sullivan, senior director at the Electoral Reform Society, “it’s clear that the status quo in our politics has failed so many for so long. Election after election, too many voters see their voices shut out. 

“We need an end to our broken First Past the Post voting system and the winner-takes-all mentality that dominates our politics. Only a fair and proportional voting system can ensure that all voices across the country are fairly represented in Parliament.”

If you have a political or social story that needs telling, get in touch with Byline Times’ Chief Reporter Josiah Mortimer confidentially by emailing josiah@bylinetimes.com.


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