Labour could outflank the Lib Dems on electoral reform

The next Labour leader needs to be bold about PR.

Today's Queen's Speech, outlining the 18-month legislative programme of Britain's first coalition government since the Second World War, is likely to include a promise of a referendum on voting reform as part of the proposed parliamentary reform bill.

Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem colleagues in the coalition cabinet will be spinning the referendum pledge as a great victory for the party. But, of course, the referendum will be on the Alternative Vote (AV), and not on a fully proportional system, which the Liberal Democrats have campaigned for since time immemorial (and to which they were committed in their own manifesto). Plus, their Conservative allies in government are free to campaign against AV during the referendum campaign.

So -- surprise, surprise! -- Nick Clegg has been reaching out to his scorned lover, the Labour Party, as he begins his personal campaign to convince the electorate of the need for electoral reform. Here is the Deputy Prime Minister on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning:

No one should be surprised that, as a Liberal Democrat, I passionately believe that our electoral system at the moment doesn't work and it can be made fairer, so that people's views are more prom-- . . . you know, are better reflected in the House of Commons. That's of course what we'll campaign on. And yes I will be reaching out to people from other parties -- not just the Conservative Party but the Labour Party as well -- saying if you believe in a different kind of politics, when it comes to a referendum, let's all join together to try and argue the case for change.

The Labour Party has two options. Either it can junk its own manifesto commitment to the Alternative Vote, in an act of petulance, and join the Tories in campaigning against change, thereby embarrassing, isolating and "punishing" the Lib Dems for their alliance with the Conservatives. This might be the preferred strategy of an instinctive first-past-the-poster like Ed Balls.

Or it can be much bolder than it has been in the past, ditch its tribalism and conservatism on electoral reform, and (belatedly) push for out-and-out proportional representation, in the form of AV+ (as recommended by Roy Jenkins back in 1998). At a stroke, Labour would seize the constitutional high ground, attract disillusioned Lib Dem voters into the fold, outflank Clegg, Huhne et al, and exacerbate tensions inside the Con-Dem coalition.

This is the view of the former home secretary Alan Johnson (why are you not standing, Alan??), writing in Sunday's Observer:

The new government is committed to a referendum on a new voting system. It will contain two options -- the current first-past-the-post system and the Alternative Vote. It will be the first time in the history of our democracy that its citizens will have a say in how their votes are translated into political power.

What possible argument can there be against adding the recommendation of the Independent Commission on the Voting System, AV+, as a third option? It retains the constituency link, extends voter choice and is broadly proportional.

Johnson adds: "I will certainly be making the case within my own party to submit legislative amendments to that effect."

Brothers Miliband -- are you listening to AJ? Please do so. You, your party and your country have much to gain.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Trade unions must change or face permanent decline

Union membership will fall below one in five employees by 2030 unless current trends are reversed. 

The future should be full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns about low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is now a resurgent debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet, as things stand, none of these currents are likely to reverse long-term decline. Membership has fallen by almost half since the late 1970s and at the same time the number of people in work has risen by a quarter. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. Overall, membership is now just under 25 per cent of all employees, however in the private sector it falls to 14 per cent nationally and 10 per cent in London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are members. Across large swathes of our economy unions are near invisible.

The reasons are complex and deep-rooted — sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few — but the upshot is plain to see. Looking at the past 15 years, membership has fallen from 30 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015. As the TUC have said, we are now into a 2nd generation of “never members”, millions of young people are entering the jobs market without even a passing thought about joining a union. Above all, demographics are taking their toll: baby boomers are retiring; millennials aren’t signing up.

This is a structural problem for the union movement because if fewer young workers join then it’s a rock-solid bet that fewer of their peers will sign-up in later life — setting in train a further wave of decline in membership figures in the decades ahead. As older workers, who came of age in the 1970s when trade unions were at their most dominant, retire and are replaced with fewer newcomers, union membership will fall. The question is: by how much?

The chart below sets out our analysis of trends in membership over the 20 years for which detailed membership data is available (the thick lines) and a fifteen year projection period (the dotted lines). The filled-in dots show where membership is today and the white-filled dots show our projection for 2030. Those born in the 1950s were the last cohort to see similar membership rates to their predecessors.

 

Our projections (the white-filled dots) are based on the assumption that changes in membership in the coming years simply track the path that previous cohorts took at the same age. For example, the cohort born in the late 1980s saw a 50 per cent increase in union membership as they moved from their early to late twenties. We have assumed that the same percentage increase in membership will occur over the coming decade among those born in the late 1990s.

This may turn out to be a highly optimistic assumption. Further fragmentation in the nature of work or prolonged austerity, for example, could curtail the familiar big rise in membership rates as people pass through their twenties. Against this, it could be argued that a greater proportion of young people spending longer in education might simply be delaying the age at which union membership rises, resulting in sharper growth among those in their late twenties in the future. However, to date this simply hasn’t happened. Membership rates for those in their late twenties have fallen steadily: they stand at 19 per cent among today’s 26–30 year olds compared to 23 per cent a decade ago, and 29 per cent two decades ago.

All told our overall projection is that just under 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030. Think of this as a rough indication of where the union movement will be in 15 years’ time if history repeats itself. To be clear, this doesn’t signify union membership suddenly going over a cliff; it just points to steady, continual decline. If accurate, it would mean that by 2030 the share of trade unionists would have fallen by a third since the turn of the century.

Let’s hope that this outlook brings home the urgency of acting to address this generational challenge. It should spark far-reaching debate about what the next chapter of pro-worker organisation should look like. Some of this thinking is starting to happen inside our own union movement. But it needs to come from outside of the union world too: there is likely to be a need for a more diverse set of institutions experimenting with new ways of supporting those in exposed parts of the workforce. There’s no shortage of examples from the US — a country whose union movement faces an even more acute challenge than ours — of how to innovate on behalf of workers.

It’s not written in the stars that these gloomy projections will come to pass. They are there to be acted on. But if the voices of union conservatism prevail — and the offer to millennials is more of the same — no-one should be at all surprised about where this ends up.

This post originally appeared on Gavin Kelly's blog