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At the 2021 Labour Party conference, a motion in support of the party working towards changing the UK's first-past-the-post voting system to a form of proportional representation was defeated by a vote of 58% to 42%.

The text of the motion concluded with the following:

Conference resolves that:

  • the next Labour government must change the voting system for general elections to a form of proportional representation.
  • Labour should convene an open and inclusive process, to decide the specific voting system which the Labour Party will commit to introducing in the next manifesto.

Looking at the breakdown of the votes, delegates from Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) voted heavily in favour of the motion 80% to 20%, while delegates from affiliated organisations (predominantly trade unions) voted overwhelmingly against the motion 95% to 5%. Because both groups receive an equal weighting, the motion fell.

On the face of it, this difference in views on this issue is quite surprising to me. I can see that arguments exist for both sides of the motion (see this related question), but what explanation is there for such polarisation in the views of the two groups on this issue?

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The effect of moving to a system of PR would be to make it almost impossible for Labour (or any other single party) holding a majority in Parliament. Inevitably a system like that in Germany would evolve, with an election, followed by a period of government formation, in which the Labour Party would try to align with other left-of-centre parties.

The calculations on how this would affect CLPs and Affiliated organisations are different.

For an individual member, the costs of entering into a coalition with other parties are worth the benefit of achieving a progressive majority. Many Labour party members are quite sympathetic to the policies of the Greens, the Lib-Dems, even the Nationalists. Many would vote tactically if they were in a constituency in which Labour was the third or fourth party. Some already are voting tactically for Labour, while actually identifying with another party, such as the Greens. And if the effect of PR is that the Labour party fades away, then there are other progressive parties that an individual could move to. As long as there are left-of-centre people in Britain, there surely will be a left-of-centre party to pick up their votes.

For individual members, and the CLPs that represent them, the important thing is a win for the "progressive majority" and PR is a way to achieve this.

But for Trade Unions, they are strongly aligned to the Labour brand. In many ways, Labour is the political wing of the Trade Union movement. Permanent Coalition government would mean their voice in the political process is diluted. They are not interested in other progressive parties in which they have no say. They can't move to a new Leftish party in the way that an individual can. PR could mean the end of Unions as a political movement.

These different calculations have resulted in the split you have observed at conference. That split runs through the middle of the PLP with MPs on both sides.

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