Leading article: The big trade unions show their regressive side

The two biggest parties are divided on the merits of electoral reform, which is a healthy sign

Share
Related Topics

The referendum on changes to the electoral system is shaping up to be the political event of next year. As it should be. Voting is a serious matter, and no alteration to the established way of doing things should be undertaken lightly or without exhaustive discussion. While not as fundamental a reform as The Independent and other advocates of proportional representation would like, a move to the Alternative Vote system would still be a landmark change for a country that has used first-past-the-post since modern elections began.

The battle lines are already being drawn up. Late last month, the "no" campaign introduced its leaders: Margaret Beckett was named president; David Blunkett and Lord Prescott were given supporting roles, along with the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, making it a truly crossbench affair.

Two weeks later, Labour's "yes" campaign started to declare its hand, with an appeal to party members from shadow ministers and others, resembling New Labour in exile. Headed by Ben Bradshaw and Alan Johnson, the signatories included Douglas Alexander, John Denham and Tessa Jowell, and Lords Adonis and Mandelson, but also "characters", such as Ken Livingstone and Tony Benn.

Now a new dimension has been added, with the disclosure that the country's two biggest trade unions, Unite and the GMB, are to join forces with the "no" campaign. While undoubtedly adding fire-power to the opponents of reform, this union support holds out the tantalising prospect of a very odd couple indeed making common cause. Die-hard supporters of worker-power and representatives of the Conservative squirearchy could find themselves on the same side, extolling the advantages of first-past-the-post. And their hostility to change stems from the very same self-interest: the potential threat AV represents in constituencies that have essentially been one-party fiefdoms for decades.

Which raises two questions. The first concerns the propriety of trade unions lining up behind one campaign or other. As the lists of MPs who have already declared their allegiance shows, the two biggest political parties are divided on the merits of change, which is a healthy sign and bespeaks an energetic and keenly fought campaign. A referendum is the national equivalent of a parliamentary free vote and a rare opportunity in British politics. Should trade unions be permitted to use their resources to influence opinion one way or another?

The second question relates more directly to vested interests. AV is not PR, and would not transform British politics in the way PR, in one or other of its forms, might have done. Taken together with boundary changes, however, it would nonetheless shake up politics, probably to the detriment of Labour. So the motives of sitting MPs need to be examined. Is it really the high principle of electoral practice that motivates them or the rather less elevated desire to hang on to a safe seat?

The preliminary supporters' lists, on either side, show that those who oppose a switch to AV are, by and large, small-c conservatives and politicians, to a greater or lesser degree, rooted in the past. That alone should send the clear message about where the future of the UK electoral system lies. There will be trepidation, to be sure. But anyone who fears a step into the unknown should find reassurance in the changes that have taken place in recent years. Since devolution, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters have all coped successfully with mixed electoral systems, and voting for the European Parliament takes place according to party lists. Contrary to widespread belief, the UK is not incapable of electoral change. It is for the "yes" campaign to make its case.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: We have an urgent requirement fo...

Senior BA - Motor and Home Insurance

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT ROLE**...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£55 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We are looking to recruit two ...

Primary supply teachers required in Ipswich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary teachers requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron and Ed Miliband attend the Queen's Speech on 4 June 2014  

Scottish referendum: It's hard for us Labour supporters to admit, but Cameron did good here

Rob Marchant
NO ballots are stacked on a table during the Scottish independence referendum count at the Royal Highland Centre in Edinburgh  

Scottish referendum: Some divorces are meant to happen – this one wasn’t

Dotti Irving
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week