Union delegates block electoral reform motion – despite 79.5% support from Labour members

The Independent reports:

Trade unions have blocked Labour from campaigning for proportional representation after a tight vote at the party’s conference in Brighton.

Delegates sent by members to the gathering overwhelmingly backed a motion in favour of electoral reform by 79.5 per cent to 20.49 per cent.

But the vast majority of delegates sent by trade unions voted against the plan, meaning the motion was lost by a total of 42 per cent to 57 per cent.

Ed Davey commented:

This is deeply disappointing. We can only build a better politics and a fairer country with a fairer electoral system.

We will keep working with the many in the Labour Party and across all parties who want to see a fairer electoral system.

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  • Very disappointing but rather predictable. It is worth noting that a lot of local Labour Party Association (over 150) supported the motion. It does show that more and more Labour members are coming around to the idea of a PR system. There are a lot of reasons to be positive but dare one say it, the Coalition. The Unions and a lot of decent people are still angry and distrustful after that. I spoke to a Labour supporting friend yesterday (left of centre, a social democrat) that is opposed to PR. His primary reason ” it would give too much power to the Lib-Dems and make them king makers…the Coalition showed that they can not be trusted”. Is it unfair? Sure, to a certain extent but it is still a widely held view. The Coalition has made it extremely difficult for Labour supporters of PR to sell it to the other Labour members. They can always point to the Coalition and say that is what PR will get you. Actions have consequences.

  • Ian MacFadyen 28th Sep '21 - 11:04am

    Why is anyone surprised?

  • Labour already have PR with 31.1% of MPs on 32.1% of the vote. It’s hard to see why they’d want to change to a system which would result in their votes and seats haemorrhaging away to smaller parties.

  • Russell Simpson 28th Sep '21 - 11:38am

    According to recent yougov polls, if you remove “don’t knows”, there’s almost a 60/40 split in favour of PR. Amongst Labour voters it’s even more and amongst Labour members more again. So on what basis does the Unions give 95% support for fptp?

  • Russell Simpson 28th Sep '21 - 11:42am

    Because under PR they’d have a realistic chance of forming a govt, albeit as senior partner in a coalition. With Scotland lost to Labour their chance of a majority is next to zero.

  • Stephen Howse 28th Sep '21 - 11:50am

    It doesn’t matter and that result changes nothing in practical terms. Either Labour get a majority, proving they can win under FPTP, and don’t implement PR in power, or they don’t get a majority and have to concede things to other parties in order to govern, which could include PR. Realpolitik will determine whether and how we get electoral reform – so stop worrying about what motions trade unionists are and aren’t backing and start worrying about how many Lib Dems are returned at the next general election.

  • Russell Simpson 28th Sep '21 - 12:00pm

    @ Saskia
    This idea that PR gives too much power to small parties is falatious. The clue is in the word “proportional”. If a 3rd party acts as “king maker” (look at NZ First party in 2017 or Greens/Liberals in Germany now) against the country’s interests, then the electorate will take their revenge next time round. In fact NZ is a good case to look at. When they adopted PR they built in to the original legislation Yes/No referendums to follow the following 3 elections. NZers liked PR as it was practised so all 3 referendums were easily won. PR will likely produce more hung parliaments which I see as positive. You never see countries going from PR to FPTP.

  • Russell Simpson 28th Sep '21 - 12:06pm

    @ Stephen
    I’d say it does change things. Certainly timing. PR is virtually impossible to bring in without Labour support. With Scotland gone to Labour we just have to see how many losses Labour is prepared to stack up before they accept that sharing power is better than no power. I’d prefer not to wait till after the next general election. Maybe Labour members will try again next year?

  • The Labour Party and their supporters will know who to blame if they are to be permanently on the opposition benches for the foreseeable future.

  • @ Jeff, my answer to your question is in part another question – because it’s the right thing to do?

    @ Russell, my suggestion is because they FPTP would have to roll out to union elections which would scare all those Union Reps already being elected under FPTP witless.

    @ Stephen – Exactly. The only thing that will bring PR is rebuilding the Lib Dems back to and beyond the levels we got to in 2005, before it all went wrong.

  • John Marriott 28th Sep '21 - 12:32pm

    The fact is that the Labour Party genuinely believes that it can displace the Tories on it own. That is wishful thinking. Now, if the left of the party were to break away and see how it got on under FPTP. We all know that the answer would be “nowhere”. It’s ironic that the block vote of the Trades Unions, whose efforts a hundred years ago helped to form the Labour Party, should now be used to deny that Party a real chance to be part of an anti Tory coalition in future.
    Your percentage quote is frankly a fluke. How does that compare, say, with the Green Party or the Liberal Democrats?

  • Malcolm Todd 28th Sep '21 - 12:50pm

    John Marriott 28th Sep ’21 – 12:32pm
    “The fact is that the Labour Party genuinely believes that it can displace the Tories on it own. That is wishful thinking.”

    Well, I don’t know. A lot of people were saying the same thing in the 1980s and early 90s. Right up until the 1992 crash and the emergence of Blair.
    Likewise, 20 years ago there were a lot of wise heads wagging over the sheer impossibility of the Tories ever shaking off the legacy of the 90s and becoming electable again.
    If you go back before my time, I believe you’ll find lots of similar sentiments.
    People always overestimate the permanence of the current situation.

  • Paul Barker 28th Sep '21 - 1:09pm

    There is no point crying over spilt votes, there is little chance of this decision being revisited in the next Decade & no prospect of Union opinion shifting – that does not mean that Labours position is settled. There is a Labour “Constitutional Convention” which is supposed to be looking at issues like this & Federalism/Devolution – I have no idea if that is real or just a way of avoiding taking a decision – probably it depends on what Starmer wants.

    The most persuasive argument we can make is by getting more Votes.

  • David Warren 28th Sep '21 - 2:03pm

    There are a lot of issues here but I will focus on just one. Trade unions are not really focused on constitutional reform, having attended countless union conferences over a twenty year period I can’t recall the subject ever coming up. Why? Well the agendas of these conferences are dominated by motions submitted by branches which inevitably focus on workplace issues.

    The various PR campaigns need to take the issue into unions not least because these are organisations not least because they represent six million working people. Sadly I don’t have much hope that they will largely because they don’t know how to. They are largely led by the intelligensia who have absolutely no idea how to address workers organisations.

  • It’s great that there is now firm evidence of the vast majority of active Labour members supporting PR, and quite a few seem angry enough about the union vote to complain to them about it, so I remain sceptically optimistic there’s still hope for change in the next few years.

    It has been suggested that unions don’t like to vote for change unless it’s been approved by their members, so it was a default vote against, rather than a determined one. There may be something in that, but I think there are too many entrenched views in parts of the union movement, with people who think Labour deserve an outright majority on a minority of the vote, because everyone not voting Labour is wrong.

    Apparently Unison (my union) abstained. Unfortunately, instead of that allowing the party members to have a greater say, it just meant that other unions (who were against) had more influence.

    I have emailed my union to ask them to justify their position. It will be interesting to see if I’ll get the kind of patronising, dismissive response we’ve come to expect from FPTP fans defending the indefensible, or if they will acknowledge it needs further discussion.

  • Peter Davies 28th Sep '21 - 2:32pm

    You could of course point to the 2010 Result and note that with 52% between us, we could have formed a coalition with Labour instead of the Tories.

  • Russell L Simpson 28th Sep '21 - 3:29pm

    @ Fiona
    Interesting. So, in reality, your union didn’t abstain. Presumably they knew that by abstaining they were voting for fptp. Not so much democracy in evidence in the Labour party conference after all then!

  • Russell Simpson 28th Sep ’21 – 11:42am:
    Because under PR they’d have a realistic chance of forming a govt, albeit as senior partner in a coalition.

    They can do that under the present system if they and/or potential partners win enough seats.

    With Scotland lost to Labour their chance of a majority is next to zero.

    With PR their chance of a majority would be even less. In elections prior to 2010 they won a higher percentage of seats than their share of the vote. In 2005, for example, they won 55.2% of seats on 35.2% of the vote.

    David Evans 28th Sep ’21 – 12:22pm:
    …because [PR is] the right thing to do?

    There are advantages and disadvantages. Arguments for and against. Neither system is inherently right or wrong.

  • John Marriott 28th Sep ’21 – 12:32pm:
    Your percentage quote is frankly a fluke.

    In 2010 it was even more of a fluke with Labour winning 40.3% of seats on 40.0% of the vote. In previous General Elections they won a larger, often much larger, percentage of seats than their share of the vote – an even stronger reason for them to retain FPTP.

    How does that compare, say, with the Green Party or the Liberal Democrats?

    Neither the Green Party or Liberal Democrats have voted to retain FPTP.

    Malcolm Todd 28th Sep ’21 – 12:50pm:
    People always overestimate the permanence of the current situation.

    Exactly so.

  • Russell Simpson 28th Sep '21 - 4:06pm

    @ Jeff
    2005 was pre SNP taking Scotland.
    The point is not that Labour would definitely get more seats under PR but that minor parties would and the chance of Labour being able to form a govt would be increased. There are many other benefits of PR: more people would vote, people would vote for the party they wanted, resources wouldn’t be channelled to marginals, etc

  • Russell Simpson 28th Sep '21 - 4:16pm

    For likely impact of PR it’s instructive to look at the German elections. CDP/CDU got 40 more seats that the social Democrats but they got heaps more on party vote. Under fptp SDP were 2nd. With PR, not only are they 1st, but sympathetic parties did well enough that they will be able to form a govt

  • John Marriott 28th Sep '21 - 4:29pm

    The main argument against PR that the unions raised was the threat it posed to the MP’s link with their constituency. Well, look at Germany, which elected its parliament last Sunday by a form of PR that partly retains that link. Roughly half the members of the Federal Parliament (nearly 300) were elected directly by FPTP, roughly the other half were elected from regional lists by PR. The Scots operate a similar system, I believe, which seems to work for them and even produced an absolute majority for the SNP (something that PR wasn’t supposed to do) a few elections ago. In essence, that’s what the Jenkins Commission recommended in 1998, which, having set it up, Blair chose to ignore.

    There are within the correspondents on LDV passionate advocates of the Single Transferable Vote (STV). While the Irish seem to like it and it is clearly the most proportional of the lot, it’s not to everybody’s taste. As Russell L Simpson observed, there don’t appear to be that many countries with a form of PR that appear to want to go over to FPTP. If there is a strong move at all, it appears to come from Conservatives. I notice that the Tories are already discussing bringing in FPTP for future PCC elections. Typical!

  • Similar events after Gordon Brown stood down as leader. In the Labour electoral college the MPs voted for David Miliband, the membership voted for David Miliband, The unions voted overwhelmingly for the more left-wing Ed Miliband and Ed won. The left of the Labour party are perpetually not interested in winning the next election but winning control of the Party and waiting for “the pendulum to swing “. With PR they know the pendulum won’t swing far enough to get 50% of the vote and they want complete power.

    With regard to the unfairness of FPTP, 1983 is something I will never forget.

  • Russell Simpson 28th Sep '21 - 4:52pm

    the Scottish system is not true PR. 2 reasons: Breaking the country into areas for party vote dilutes the proportionality – should be whole country for party vote. Secondly, they (for some bizarre reason) ignored the overhang. Thus, eg SNP got 54% of seats from 44% of vote in 2011. I have no idea why they did this. NZ and Germany do MMP properly proportional.

  • Brad Barrows 28th Sep '21 - 5:27pm

    @Russell Simpson
    The system used to elect MSPs in Scotland was developed as part of a deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland as part of the Scottish Constitutional Commission – in other words, a compromise. Labour wanted to retain the majority of MSPs being elected by FPTP as they expected to always around 50 or more MSPs out of that part of the system, while the Liberal Democrats expected that the introduction of the Additional Members would mean that Labour would fall short of a majority overall and would therefore invite the Liberal Democrats to join in coalitions. The SNP has benefitted from this system, as shown in 2011 as it has shown it is possible to gain a majority of seats even though they just fell short of a majority of votes. In 2016 and 2021 the electoral system worked as intended with the SNP just falling short of a majority on each occasion having won just under 50% of the vote each time.

  • Paul Barker 28th Sep '21 - 6:18pm

    Its obvious why We should find this Vote so upsetting but Libdems need to spend less time thinking about Labour & crucially, we should not invest ou r hopes in them. We can work with them on some things but they are not going to become more Liberal or more Democratic. Labour are a Dinosaur, stuck in the Past.

  • John Marriott 28th Sep '21 - 6:55pm

    I acknowledge that the Scottish system for electing its Parliament is far from perfect; but it’s much better than the system for electing its Westminster MPs.

  • @Russell, the higher number of FPTP seats means that when one party is dominant, and moreso when it’s not just a three-way, but a four/five-way split, that you end up with the situation where there’s a lot of electoral room between a party doing well on FPTP seats, and being able to add any extra through the list vote. Hence attempts to game the system by SNP voters using their list vote in the hope of adding Greens or Alba MSPs, who don’t get FPTP MSPs.

    I presume this was a line in the sand by Labour who assumed they’d be the ones getting an advantage from the extra FPTP seats, though I don’t think even they anticipated the system would be gamed.

    Some of us saw this coming over the last couple of Holyrood elections. You can’t really blame parties for making the most of a flawed system, but we shouldn’t be afraid to ensure that this flaw is known when talking about what systems we want for Westminster.

    Having a series of regional lists should be good for keeping a connection between the list MSPs and their constituents, and overall I think that works fine. There are some SNP supporters who act like list MSPs are lesser, but they are important for those who need someone of a particular political persuasion to stick up for them. You might argue that could be done with a mega-list, but list MSPs still see their areas as their constituencies. Perhaps you could also have one mega-constituency to add further balance based on the existing list votes. We’d probably have benefited from that in this year’s election, but it’s beginning to get silly.

    People talk about tweaks to compensate for the known flaws, but if you are going to muck about with the system to make it better, you might as well push for a better system like STV.

  • Denis Mollison 28th Sep '21 - 9:04pm

    @Fiona – Indeed, and in Wales the Senedd is considering following the recommendations of the 2017 McAllister Report and changing to STV.
    LDER are holding a lunchtime fringe at the joint LD Scotland/Wales conference on Sat 9 October, to compare Scottish and Welsh experience of electoral reform and what we can learn from each other – hope some of those here can attend. Speakers to include the Labour MS Huw Irranca-Davies who was on the Senedd’s recent Electoral Reform Committee.

  • James Fowler 29th Sep '21 - 9:38am

    There’s really nothing surprising about this result. The ‘true’ voice of this section of the Labour Party could be heard in The Guardian this week where a lengthy article fulsomely rejected PR – essentially because it gave power to us, and we could not be trusted. There is some truth in this. Indeed – shock, horror – any of the smaller Parties might occasionally refuse to support Labour, as they failed to do in the No Confidence debate in March 1979.

    However, there are now several pieces of grit in the FPTP two party machine. The largest and hardest is the SNP which has now very successfully stacked its vote over three elections. To a lesser extent we, the Greens, and a protean ‘Right-Wing Party’ offer varying levels of indirect friction in the system. The long and short of it is that Johnson’s current large majority is much shakier than it looks. If we and and the SNP win half a dozen additional MPs each, and Labour an additional 25-30, then it’s gone. These are scarcely unrealistic aspirations.

    Eventually, the Labour Left may accept that the SNP denies them majority power via a ‘British’ FPTP victory, and their own shibboleths and postures shut them out of the alternative ‘English’ FPTP landslide. Given their strong emotional attachment to being embattled and persecuted, yet righteous, we may have to wait some time. In the meantime, lets make the Liberal FPTP contingent as large as possible to give us the strongest possible hand in whatever negotiations may well arise following the next election.

  • I think we need to see this result as a glass half full not half empty!
    The vast majority of Labour members in the constituencies now support PR. This is not a fad, it is the culmination of four decades of work by the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.
    Affiliated Unions may not yet be persuaded, but that will not matter if the Tories lose their overall majority at the next General Election. Any arrangement, whether Coalition, or Confidence & Supply between Labour and Liberal Democrats (and possibly the Green party if they can win more than one seat) will have Electoral Reform as a condition. The fact that this is not opposed by local Labour parties makes delivering that far easier. I’m old enough to remember the Lib-Lab pact era when a Labour PM could not even get the support of his MPs for PR for the European Elections. We’ve move a long way from there, albeit too slowly!

  • Russell Simpson 29th Sep '21 - 10:25am

    @ Steve
    I agree. What would be nice would be to implement PR without a referendum. I would not be in favour of a referendum for obvious reasons. If Labour had PR in their manifesto a referendum would not be necessary as Johnson did a far bigger constitutional change on the back of a general election win.

  • Russell Simpson 29th Sep '21 - 10:44am

    @ Fiona
    I see no reason for regions for party list MSPs. There is already the constituent MSP. The point of MMP is to be proportional. I can’t believe no-one considered a party gaming the system. I don’t know why a Scottish voter supporting independence wouldn’t vote SNP 1st vote and Green 2nd vote. In that way pro indy voters could get 65% of MSPs from 45% of vote. This was Salmond’s point. MMP is more proportional than STV (Sinn Fein “won” the election with 25% of the vote but only got 23% of TDs), is easier to understand and works perfectly in Germany and NZ. It’s a shame that the Scottish system is such a mess as it makes it harder to sell PR.

  • It seems to me that we do not have to have the whole Labour Party behind the change to go forwards. If we know that Labour MPs and the Northern Irish are largely behind PR, this gives us the incentive to keep bringing it to the attention of the public. Is there no hope of getting a private member’s bill before Parliament?

  • Paul Barker 29th Sep '21 - 2:41pm

    Can we please stop obsessing about Labour & think about how to speed our recovery instead.

    If we have to talk about labour lets look at them dispassionately. The 3 most important groups in labour are the leadership team, the mps & the unions, in that order.
    the mps & the unions are dead set against any electoral reform – the unknown factor are what Starmer & his team are thinking.

  • Russell Simpson 28th Sep ’21 – 4:06pm:
    2005 was pre SNP taking Scotland.

    The SNP have not (yet) taken Scotland away. The formation of breakaway parties (in this case Alba and Restore Scotland) is usually an indication that a party’s fortunes are on the wane. We may have already seen the high water mark of the SNP. A larger impediment to Labour regaining power is their Brexit betrayal, as personified by their current leader.

    The point is not that Labour would definitely get more seats under PR but that minor parties would and the chance of Labour being able to form a govt would be increased.

    Assuming it was genuinely proportional they could only lose seats – they’ve never had a higher percentage of seats than their share of the vote. Again, it’s hard to see why Labour would want to lose seats to minor parties based on nothing more than speculation that it might possibly increase their chance of forming a government. It could make a Labour government, even in coalition, less likely – the big gap in UK politics is currently to the right of the Conservatives.

    There are many other benefits of PR: more people would vote,…

    There are disadvantages too. Higher turnout isn’t a given. After New Zealand adopted PR in the 1990s (cited above), turnout initially increased then declined to new lows…

    ‘Voter Turnout Decline and Possibilities for the Rejuvenation of Politics’:

    Drawing on data from the 1993–1996 New Zealand Election Study, for instance, one study found that ‘more voters came to see that their votes really mattered, few thought their MPs did not care or were out of touch, and fewer thought that government was run by a few big interests’. However, such positivity appears to have quickly eroded as turnout resumed its decline from the 1999 General Election until the 2014 and 2017 general elections, in which there were mild increases.

    …people would vote for the party they wanted,…

    But would be less likely to get the government they wanted.

    Russell Simpson 28th Sep ’21 – 4:16pm:
    Under fptp SDP were 2nd. With PR, not only are they 1st, but sympathetic parties did well enough that they will be able to form a govt

    It doesn’t sound very democratic when the losers get to form a government.

  • Christopher Moore 29th Sep '21 - 5:36pm

    Several posters have mentioned the idea that once countries have PR, they don’t go (back) to FPTP.

    France had PR in the Fourth Republic (1946-58). PR was one of the institutional factors behind the Fourth Republc’s instabilty with multiple small parties in Parliament producing short-lived multi-party governments.

    It was rejected for the Fifth Republic with a two round FPTP system introduced.

    However in 1986, the Socialists re-introduced PR, hoping to moderate their losses in the upcoming legislative elections. Subsequently, the French went back to FPTP.

  • John Marriott 29th Sep '21 - 5:42pm

    Malcolm Todd
    I remember the 1990s pretty well, as it was in this decade that I did most of the campaigning that kep me on various councils until I retired in 2017. In fact I was a parliamentary candidate in the 1997 GE and saw Blairmania at first hand. However, the big difference between then and now was that, thanks to Kinnock and Hattersley, by the time of John Smith’s untimely death, Labour had won back much of the ground ceded to the Tories between 1979 and 1983. By the time Blair and Brown took over, the acorns were becoming little oaks, while the Tory variety was withering after 18 years in power.

    For Kinnock read Starmer. If Labour is to replicate its performance in 1997, it may need someone else to lead it to the promised land and more time to do it. Starmer might be performing the role of a modern day Moses. For Major read Johnson. Nobody in 1992 thought the former had a prayer; but a combination of soap box oratory, the infamous Sheffield Rally and a worry about taxation upset the apple cart and left Major holding a poisoned chalice for the next five years.

  • Nonconformistradical 29th Sep '21 - 5:56pm

    @Russell Simpson
    “It doesn’t sound very democratic when the losers get to form a government.”

    It isn’t very democratic when FPTP winners get to form a government if across the country they don’t represent the views of a majority of the voters and so-called safe seats result in many voters not bothering to vote in the knowledge that there is no chance whatsoever of their preferred party/candidate being elected.

  • Russell Simpson 29th Sep '21 - 6:53pm

    Good point re France. Perhaps the exception to prove the rule. But I’d dispute the French system being fptp. AV more like.
    SPD weren’t losers. They were wanted by 2% more than wanted CDU/CSU and because every vote was counted they got more seats. My point is that fptp is undemocratic because it doesn’t treat all votes as equal! The German elections illustrate that perfectly.

  • Obviously I want PR but I worry it would lead to a split in the Lib Dems with social liberals teaming up with the Greens leaving the LDs as an equivalent of the FDP who lean centre-right. Developing a core vote strategy now might prevent that from happening.

    There is no reason why the largest party has any particular right to form a government if they don’t have a majority. Being able to command a majority is all that matters and Germany have had plenty of 2nd & 3rd place coalitions.

  • Chris Moore 29th Sep '21 - 8:14pm

    @Russell Simpson

    Yes, the French two round system is like AV but staggered in time. Slightly better than the UK version of FPTP, but also doubly arduous logistically.

    It does encourage parties to co-operate electorally to a certain degree, for the second round.

    That has done for Front National prospects in the past.

  • Denis Mollison 30th Sep '21 - 9:01am

    @Chris Moore
    The 2-round system, which is used for many countries’ presidential elections, is better than FPTP. It’s also better (though more expensive) than the `Supplementary Vote’ (SV), which is essentially a 2-round system where you have to guess who’ll be in the second round.

    When electing an individual, such as a President, possible systems in order of increasing sophistication (and I would say fairness) are:

    FPTP, SV, 2-round, AV, Condorcet

    Where there are 2 main contenders, any of these other than FPTP will end satisfactorily, in a straight comparison of those 2, with the winner having to get over 50%.

    Where, as in France, there are many contenders with a real chance of success, 2-round is not satisfactory, making it too easy for extremists to get into the final round. In 2017, opinion polls indicated that the voters’ overall preferences ranked Le Pen 4th, but she got into the final round. I wrote about this in the run-up to that election – https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2017/april/bring-back-condorcet

    In case readers think it’s just me that supports Condorcet’s method, two Nobel-prize winning economists put the case in the US context a little later in 2017 – https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/06/08/a-better-way-to-choose-presidents/

  • Peter Hirst 2nd Oct '21 - 5:25pm

    While internal Labour matters are of concern to them, we could point out the absurdity of a serious political party having half of its conference votes determined by the trade unions. Where is the fairness in that? Unless Labour changes this dinasaur like approach to its conference procedures they are fair game for being challenged on their supposed value of fairness.

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