Boris Johnson’s undemocratic proposal on strike ballots
London Mayor Boris Johnson has renewed his call for industrial action ballots only to be valid if the turn-out is more than 50%.
Superficially that might sound just a bit democratic, but the reality is that it is simply about erecting a hurdle that will make official strike action extremely hard to achieve.
Let us take a hypothetical workforce of 1,000. They ballot for strike action. 499 vote yes and nobody votes no. This fails to go over the Boris hurdle as the turn-out is 49.9%, and so the strike is not valid.
Down the road there is another workforce. Amazingly this consists of exactly 1,000 employees too.
They also ballot for strike action ( we must be in the midst of a season of discontent). This time 251 vote for strike action, and 250 vote against. This is a valid vote for strike action as the turn out exceeds 50%.
But the first ballot has an overwhelming majority. Any union would see that as a strong mandate for action. The second is so finely balanced that unions would think hard before calling their members out, even though this would be legal.
This is clearly not about democracy, but simply about making it difficult for unions to call strike action. The result will be an angry workforce and a much greater likelihood of messy unofficial action (with no notice to the employer).
In any case most strike ballots do not result in strikes. What almost always happens is that a further round of negotiations takes place. The union has demonstrated that it has support from its members, and the employer makes enough of a concession to get agreement. Calling for negotiations to take place without anyone ever striking – as many government supporters do – fails to understand that unless both sides have some power and some incentive to settle, negotiations are unlikely to produce agreement.
No-one can know what those members who do not vote would do so if they had returned their ballot. Assuming that they would all be on one side of the question seems to me extremely dubious. My guess is that they would not divide that differently from those that vote, but how differently must remain a mystery.
But increasing turn-out is always a good thing to do. No union wants a yes vote with a tiny turn-out.
The law could be changed to boost turnout while maintaining a secret ballot if that’s what Ministers want. Letting people vote online – or even by text – has been trialled for council elections. It can be made secure. Giving people different ways to vote would be likely to get more people voting.
But don’t hold your breath.