NEU UCU PCS RMT ASLEF protest in Norwich
Credit: Roger Blackwell, Flickr

Manuel Bueno

Unison Member

The trade union movement has always led demands for greater democracy, empowering working people and communities, and offering a different vision of society. Today, that demand for greater democracy is vital and urgent. 

The powerful levers of the state are being used to undo rights and freedoms, give jobs and contracts to cronies, and attack minorities.

We need to rewire the system to put wealth and power in the hands of the many, giving ordinary people collective control over the things that affect their lives. But we cannot build a country that works for working people unless we take on our unaccountable and dysfunctional state. We need a political system that embodies the values of equality, fairness and representation. 

Empowerment is perhaps the most important thing the trade union movement can offer people. Only by putting democracy at the heart of our agenda can we build an economy and society that works for all – a politics for the many. 

That means overhauling the warped electoral system at Westminster that silences millions of working people.

First Past the Post – the system used to elect MPs is designed to create single-party governments and ensures that parties get a majority of seats, but almost always without them getting a majority of votes. 

First Past the Post is biased towards the Conservative Party

This has let the Conservatives hold on to power with a minority of the vote – in 2015 the Conservatives won a majority of MPs, enabling them to form a single-party government on less than 37% of the vote.  The next election saw the hard-right DUP put the Conservatives back into power – with a combined 43% of the vote. And in 2019, the Tories won almost complete control of Parliament, again without a majority of votes. First Past the Post benefits the right time and time again. 

The see-saw of FPTP single-party domination in Britain has allowed for sweeping legislation that has eroded trade union rights. 

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.

Ushering in anti-union legislation

Trade union rights have been the target of anti-trade union legislation by right-wing governments here when they secure power – what happens when we have such a centralised, elitist political system 

Over the last forty years successive UK governments have played tug of war with the rights of trade unions. The list of statutory obligations on unions has grown exponentially as governments have sought to restrict and heavily regulate trade union activity, and further reduce the potential challenge to power.  

Since 1980 there have been no less than fourteen employment and trade union acts restricting and then, to a degree, clawing back union rights. Many of these acts, in particular the Employment Acts of 1980, 1988, Trade Union Acts of 1984 and 2016, and the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993, have been introduced swiftly after General Elections. By contrast, all of the EU countries which have embedded trade union rights, and have high union density and collective bargaining coverage, are democracies which employ PR electoral systems.

Growing calls for change

Calls for change are growing louder in the labour movement. Supporters of proportional representation include the trade unions: Aslef, BFAWU, FBU, Musician’s Union, PCS, Prospect, TSSA, UCU, Unison and Unite as well as Compass and Momentum.  In September 2022, the Labour Party Conference overwhelmingly passed a motion in favour of PR.

If we want to not only to protect the rights that we have over the long-term, but also improve the rights of workers; if we want to create a more equal society, then we need a politics for the many and a progressive government where workers always have a seat at the table.

Politics for the Many is supported by leading trade unionists across all Labour-linked unions and beyond, and we want to step our campaigning up a gear. 

It’s free to join and you can be part of the campaign by signing up here: Politics for the Many | Trade Unionists for Proportional Representation

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