Howard Kaye

A special column by Howard Kaye, a member of the Executive Committee for ASLEF, the train drivers’ union. In May 2021, ASLEF voted to support electoral reform at their Annual Assembly of Delegates.

Trades unions have long been a place for workers to have their voices heard. Like much of the country, many of our members have been trapped in constituencies where their vote doesn’t count. Unions give them a voice: even if they can’t change their MP, they are still represented by their union and can have a say in union democracy.

More than ever, the power of our voices is becoming clear. The press have watched with increasing interest for recent Union election results, and on where we will stand on the great issues of the day.

Recently, voting reform has been one of these great issues. With motions coming to Labour conference for the party to end its support of First Past the Post, unions such as mine have been discussing how we will approach such a serious issue. 

For years, I have been in favour of a fairer voting system. Whether I was living in Leeds or Surrey, there was no chance that my vote would matter. Not only was I trapped in a “safe seat”, but time after time Conservative majorities were forced upon me with as little as 39%  of the vote. 

This system has also created an environment which has been toxic for workers and unions alike. For decades, unions have been taken for granted by successive Conservative governments. After all, what’s the point of listening to unions if there is no hope of winning the industrial heartlands their members come from? 

It has been under this system that union membership has declined and their powers limited. It has been under First Past the Post that wages have stagnated and income inequality soared. It has been as a result of unrepresentative elections that workers have remained unprotected from long hours, poor conditions and the looming threat of fire-and-rehire. 

Will a new voting system change this? Not overnight. But surely workers have a better chance at a fair deal if their votes matter? 

Over the last few months, we have been having that very discussion within ASLEF. Some of our members had valid concerns about what electoral reform might look like, but we had the conversations, and in May the union came together and formally voted in favour of PR. In many ways, the process showed just what a more representative voting system could bring the country: more mature conversations, fairer decision-making, and a leadership which was eager to respect the result no matter the outcome. 

These are discussions which have been happening across the broader trade union movement. I have been amazed at the people  who now believe the Labour Party should make PR policy. People across the party, from Jon Lansman to Seb Dance, are starting to realise that our democracy does not work for them, and it is time for all votes to be counted equally. The more votes, the more conversations I and colleagues in groups like Make Votes Matter have, the more the momentum seems in our direction. At the start of this campaign, electoral reform felt like a dream. Now, it is within reach. 

Now, we have a chance for our voices to be heard. In September, Labour will have the long-awaited discussion about whether or not to commit to voting reform. With 83 percent of members in favour, along with much of the trade union movement, the time has come to ditch First Past the Post. 

Coming out of the pandemic we face unique challenges in improving lives for workers. The only way that we can ensure that unions will have a say in how these challenges are resolved, is if our votes aren’t sidelined in a system which excludes all but a handful of areas. It is time to open up our democracy, and to let the increasingly determined voices of workers finally be heard. 

If you believe that every citizen deserves a vote that counts, join Make Votes Matter now!

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