Trade Unions and Constitutional Change – Issues we can’t duck

Discussions initiated by campaign groups such as the Electoral Reform Society [1] and Involve [2] about identifying and then remedying the problem of low engagement by, especially, younger people in the political process have a direct relevance and importance for the trade union movement.

First of all, the abstentionism of a majority of young people absolutely affected the outcome of the 2010 and 2015 General Election. There is a clear advantage and indeed necessity in raising the level of engagement in the political process by young people and, of course, that includes young trade unionists.

The second connection is that low levels of engagement do not just appear in connection with political activity – they are also a feature of the democratic process within trade unions themselves. Therefore if we can find strategies that will deal with low levels of engagement in one sphere we should be able to map them across into another.

Even though trade union interest in this area is anything but well-established, there is a very wide range of academic interest in the question of participatory democracy. Plans for two “constitutional convention” pilot exercises (to test the theory and practice of how such conventions could operate) will be run by ERS in Southampton and Sheffield have now been finalised – and there will be some trade union input/participation.



This work is important not just because of the central relevance of voter/member engagement to trade unions.

It is also important because it seeks to address some dominant political issues that cannot be avoided given the preferences of the current government.

One of these issues is the “English votes for English laws” nationalism enthusiastically advocated by the Prime Minister, especially in the wake of the Scottish Independence Referendum last year [3]. This means that the issue of devolution within the UK is not just limited to Scotland and there will be a wider debate. The government has already published its view about the vehicle that should be used to carry forward that debate which it is feared will be a very select form of constitutional convention, both in terms of its composition and in terms of its remit.

It was this particularly that prompted the Electoral Reform Society to call for a genuine people’s constitutional convention to make sure all views in society were accommodated and which seeks to make sure that the way in which the convention works is open, democratic, responsive and meaningful.[4]

The second way in which this issue is unavoidable is that part of the overall devolution debate is the “Devo-Manc” policy that will see first Manchester and then presumably other major centres given devolved responsibility for a greater range of services than has ever previously been the case in modern Britain. [5] This means that there will need to be new models of democratic accountability to provide oversight for those devolved services. If there are new devolved models of accountability that means that all sorts of issues about how they are selected, how they work, what their remit is, come onto the table.

It is clearly important for progressive organisations to recognise this as an opportunity for engagement in order to participate in debate and influence outcomes.

Indeed, with initiatives looming that will significantly change pan-UK politics, (such as Individual Electoral Registration and the consequent re-drawing of parliamentary boundaries), it is more important than ever to be aware of any and every opportunity that exists to make sure our voice is heard.[6]


It is not just within the context of UK politics that the potential importance and value of constitutional conventions can be seen. Two fairly contemporary recent examples also show why this can be an important issue.

First example is the Irish Referendum on Equal Marriage. This was preceded by constitutional convention which many would argue allowed the issue of equal marriage onto the political debate, socialised the issue through debate and then made a major contribution in generating a public momentum for change that the government of the day found irresistible.[7]

The second example is that of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, established in 1981 which brought together a very wide-range of Scottish society – in fact all of Scottish society apart from the Conservative Party and some fellow travelling unionists.

The convention is credited as providing the social and political network that lead to effective devolution in the late 1990s when 20 years previously it had seemed an impossibility.[8]


Most recently, the newly/appointed Labour’s leadership has entered this debate. Last week Shadow Secretary of State for local government, Jon Trickett, announced the Party’s plans for their own People’s Assemblies. These are described at http://labourlist.org/2015/09/labour-to-organises-citizens-assemblies-to-reinvent-politics/. However, it seemed to me that this was open to misinterpretation and therefore criticism and limited success. My response, written in a personal capacity, to Jon’s proposals appears http://labourlist.org/2015/09/the-question-of-peoples-assemblies-isnt-as-straight-forward-as-it-might-seem/

In the same week, the TUC had its first substantive debate on electoral reform in many years, and is now committed to an investigation into possible forms of alternative voting.[9] However, many unions have yet to debate the issue internally.


The notions of electoral reform and constitutional reform, constitutional conventions and participative democracy have fresh momentum behind them and will be with us for the foreseeable future. It is therefore appropriate and necessary that the labour movement keeps this area under active review, seeking to influence both debate and the outcome.

[1]        http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

[2]        http://www.involve.org.uk/

[3]            https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/441848/English_votes_for_English_laws_explanatory_guide.pdf

[4]        http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/constitutional-convention

[5]        http://www.centreforcities.org/blog/will-devo-manc-mean-devo-max-for-cities/

[6]        http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN06764/SN06764.pdf

[7]        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-32858501

[8]        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Constitutional_Convention

[9]        http://blueandgreentomorrow.com/2015/09/15/tuc-congress-unions-to-consider-change-of-voting-system-for-uk-elections/

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