Interview with Billy Hayes: Time for socialism, time for PR

Submitted by martin on 5 October, 2021 - 11:08
Billy Hayes

At Labour Party conference, a motion supporting proportional representation was defeated 42-58, with constituency votes heavily for but union votes heavily against. Billy Hayes is a member of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER) executive and former Communication Workers' Union general secretary. He spoke to us in a personal capacity; these views are his alone.

A cut down version was published in the print version of Solidarity 608 with the headline "We need socialism, but democracy helps".

The CLPs voted 80% for PR. What we've yet to do is convince the bulk of the unions. Only four unions voted for - the Musicians, the Bakers, ASLEF and TSSA. Of course the Bakers are gone now. Unite and GMB voted against, Unison abstained. Large general unions are by their nature complicated and harder to shift on things. But only one, GMB, has actually discussed PR and taken a stance against. Unite is discussing at its policy conference this month.

So I think overall it's a big step forward and the amount of CLP support was a major political achievement.

Do you think if it had passed the leadership would have taken it up?

Keir Starmer did previously say he was in favour of changing the voting system, but I don't know. It's a distinctive thing this issue - it cuts across left and right.

If we had won, obviously that wouldn't mean the party would automatically do it. You have to fight to make things hegemonic. Look at the minimum wage, that was originally opposed by most of the unions. Now no one would dream of opposing it. The fact we got such a huge vote from the CLPs means that we're well on the way.

We support PR. But our impression is that many campaigning for it have a tendency to regard it as a panacea for the left's problems. Do you think that's true?

I certainly don't see it as a panacea. We need a socialist transformation of society, or first of all steps in that direction. Democracy by itself is never an answer, but it most certainly helps the struggle. It's not a silver bullet, but it is ordnance. There may be a bit of a tendency to see it as a cure-all, but equally I think there's a risk of underestimating its importance. 

There's plenty of evidence from other countries it does tend to produce better political and social outcomes. That's why the Tories are so committed to First Past the Post; it's why they're eliminating preferential votes in the metro mayor and police and crime elections.

Some on the left say this is a distraction, but it's no more a distraction than votes for women was, or the Chartists' demands. I'm sure Feargus O'Connor and Emmeline Pankhurst were constantly told there were more important things to worry about too. In a few years we'll be approaching the centenary of universal suffrage; which is 2028 it's a good   time to renew a fight for democracy. We should remind ourselves how recent existing arrangements are. In 1945 there were still university seats in Parliament and at the end of the 60s you didn't have one person one vote in Northern Ireland.

Do you think support for PR implies support for electoral pacts and coalition governments?

Clearly there are those who advocate PR and advocate those things, but it's not necessarily connected. There are different views within the campaign [LCER]. I'm opposed to pacts and to coalitions with more right-wing parties. I think we should be optimistic about winning majorities for Labour. Then discuss the outcome.

After all, we got near majorities of the vote in the 50s and 60s, at points where we were inspiring people. Note that in 1951 we got 48.8%, our best ever, but lost because of First  Past the Post.

Labour in New Zealand got a majority in a PR system, and the same in Wales ,one seat short. There's places where you have social democratic parties in coalition with more left-wing parties, like in parts of Germany and potentially Norway now.

Having PR in our manifesto would help win votes for Labour. But we need economic social policies that inspire and enthuse people. The kind of things we had in the 2017 manifesto are the obvious starting point.

We've got a real problem with older voters. We need strong policies on pensions, on maintaining the triple lock, on decent pensions for all, and on social care free at the point of need.

On the point about pacts, part of the reason I'm in favour of PR is that it means you can campaign and have an effect wherever you are - whether you've only got a small Labour vote or whether you're somewhere like London where Labour votes are piling up. First Past the Post concentrates attention on swing votes in a small number of seats; and with the Boundary Commission report coming that problem will likely get even worse.

What was your take on Labour conference more generally?

Well, we did well on policy, but not on the rule changes. Defeating the electoral college wasn't nothing, but the other rule changes are a problem. 

However on international issues, on social issues, on the £15 minimum wage, on public ownership, the positions were are good. The Green New Deal was good though with the two motions there was a bit of classic facing both ways. Overall if you look at it the centre of gravity in the membership is still left. 

I'd add however that it's not enough to fight for policies in the party. You need to get out and popularise them. Do the research, the detailed work and then get them out to the wider public.

There was that huge issue with the 2019 manifesto - that the policies were dropped in at the last minute, not developed democratically and campaign for over years.

Yes, that's right. We need a campaigning party. If you take broadband, we started raising it in the CWU back in 2001. And CWU people raised it a lot during the Corbyn period, but it was only taken up right at the last minute.

The left is not very good on the future, so to speak. To inspire people we need policies that are future-facing - like the manifesto in 1945, "Let us face the future". We need to attack poverty and inequality, of course, but we need a forward-looking vision of society. Even take an issue like immigration, we should be making a positive case and getting people excited. If people can get excited about Emma Raducanu that's not so hard to imagine. Ironically the Tories are often very good on incorporating and riding social trends for their own right-wing agenda.


Submitted by AWL on Wed, 06/10/2021 - 09:52

You can read the text of the motion here, p26.

Votes cast

For 294,986 (79.51%)
Against 76,028 (20.49%)

Affiliates (unions)
For 62,715 (4.97%)
Against 1,199,311 (95.03%)
(these numbers indicate a large union abstention, including Unison)

Overall (CLPs count for 50% of conference, affiliates for 50%)

39.75% for, 10.25% against

2.48% for, 47.52% against

42.24% for, 57.76% against

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.