PR – the idea whose time has come

Everyone is talking about democracy, or the lack of it, in the Brexit/Bremain debate. The focus on democratic transparency and representation in the EU often overlooks the unfair anomaly closer to home that is the Westminster electoral system of First-Past-the-Post (FPTP).

My union, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union sees proportional representation (PR) as a means of participation and presentation to counter neo-liberal austerity at all levels. Across Europe, PR has given space for people opposed to austerity to gain fair political representation whereas FPTP has not. Greece, Spain and Portugal have seen progressive alliances that better reflect this strand of political opinion.

Forms of PR are now utilised in Scottish local government, Scottish Parliament (and the other devolved legislatures) and European Parliament elections. Westminster, clinging to its unfair, outmoded and time-served FPTP system has now become the anomaly, not the norm.

The 2015 general election result shows FPTP is no longer fit for purpose. In Scotland, Labour won 24% of the vote yet returned only one MP. Even the phenomenal swing to SNP cannot account for it taking 56 of the 59 seats. Can even the most hardened SNP supporter really say it’s a fair reflection of Scottish political views that Labour, LibDems and the Tories have only one Scottish MP each?

Across Britain, the Tories’ vote share increased by just 0.8% but they got 24 more MPs. Labour increase by 1.5% but lost 26 seats. The Greens polled more than a 1m votes but got only one MP.

Electoral reform and PR in particular has unfairly been depicted on the left as a preoccupation of middle-class liberals. Traditionally, the labour movement has supported FPTP as politics swung back and forward in a clean-cut ‘them and us’ class war. Since the arrival of ‘new Labour’, alternating Tory and Labour governments have increasingly blurred, sometimes making it difficult to tell the difference between a Tory, LibDem or Labour policy in a scramble to appeal to swing voters and the fiction of ‘middle-England’.

Corbyn’s momentum of young activists joining the newly invigorated ‘yes’ generation in Scotland, provides an opportunity not only to reflect on a different kind of politics but to genuinely make it possible. ‘New’ Labour’s abandonment of working class values and support can only now be won back by the Corbyn left leadership making a marked changed, in England and Wales at least. But the Labour leader will also need a changed electoral system to embed this.

Some express trepidation that PR gives UKIP opportunities. It is worrying that support for the far right has increased amongst working class communities but this is a response to austerity, whipped up by government policies of ‘new’ Labour, LibDem and Tory governments that scapegoated the poor, benefit recipients, immigrants and those fleeing wars seeking asylum. We will only defeat the politics of the far right by challenging them politically. Sweeping the problem under the carpet by maintaining a skewed, failing FPTP system also sweeps away significant representation for Labour, Green and other progressive parties and ideas.

PCS has favoured PR since our annual delegate conference of 2008. At the 2015 TUC congress, it successfully won PR for Westminster becoming TUC policy. The late general secretary of RMT union, Bob Crow, was a keen supporter of PR. So too is the Communication Workers Union (affiliated to Labour) and Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, demonstrating a growing confidence on the left that not only is PR fairer, it is tactically good for the left to advance.
PCS is not affiliated to any political party. Our PR policy seeks to make politicians more responsive to our campaigning in elections where every vote counts. In the run up to the Scottish Parliament elections, our union through our ‘Make Your Vote Count’ campaign encourages each and every member to engage with, question and scrutinise candidates around core PCS questions on jobs, on pay and conditions, on tax and on welfare.

PCS is now bringing the debate on PR to the Scottish TUC congress in Dundee in April in the form of a motion that we hope will receive the support of Scottish affiliates.

Lynn Henderson is the national officer for Scotland and Ireland for the PCS union