It’s official, most people back online strike ballots. So why won’t the #TUbill allow them?
We’ve published the results of a new poll today, showing that the majority of the British public think that unions should be able to use electronic balloting to vote for industrial action. YouGov talked to a representative sample of 1,711 adults. 53% told them that secure online voting for strike action would be an appropriate method, but only 20% said it wouldn’t.
The panel had very similar thoughts on whether political parties should be able to use the technology in their leadership elections (53% in favour and 22% against). That’ll no doubt come as a relief to Zac Goldsmith, who won the Tory London Mayoral election nomination in an online vote a few months back, and to the Labour party top team, who were elected on a system using both online and postal ballots.
But it’s little comfort to trade unions, who despite calling for this for many years, are still prohibited by law from using online voting in statutory ballots.
Instead when unions want to get their members’ votes, they need to send every member a form in the post, running the gauntlet of getting lost, thrown out with the junk, or sitting for weeks on the shelf waiting for a trip to the post box that never comes. Pretty much everyone else is moving away from postal-only voting, precisely because it’s known to depress turnout. Not just political party elections, but corporate shareholder ballots, voluntary organisation votes, professional association elections, building society member decisions and university votes have all been conducted online in the last couple of years.
The TUC believes allowing union members to use phones and computers to engage in voting would raise turnouts in union elections and give more workers a clear say.
However, the problem comes about because unlike everyone else unions are regulated by the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, which orders postal-only ballots. Given the government’s Trade Union Bill is opening up this legislation, you’d think it would be an ideal opportunity to fix this old loophole, no? In fact, it’s such an obvious one that 29% of people in our poll thought online voting was already legal for unions.
All through the progress of this Bill, the government’s justification for their jumble of new pieces of red tape (ranging from the bizarre to the authoritarian) is that it will help the public see more clearly that any strike enjoys the genuine majority support of the striking workforce. The obvious answer to this is: Well, why don’t you actually let people vote for it using a halfway useful system then?
The government’s half-hearted response that online voting isn’t secure enough for such an important decision would look pretty disingenuous, even if they hadn’t just been caught dousing themselves in goose-sauce. In an age when most of us don’t think twice about using our phones and computers to pay bills, register passports, book medical appointments, file insurance claims and set up companies, why should a vote for strike action be subject to a greater level of security than all the rest of our sensitive data and important decisions?
And of course if security is their biggest concern, then why do they also want to deny us the other voting mechanism we’d like to be able to offer our members – the security gold-standard of independently supervised secret ballot box voting in the workplace? Between that and online voting, we’d see turnouts reach much higher levels than with snail mail democracy alone.
To add insult to injury, the Trade Union Bill is not only missing the opportunity to let unions move out of the 20th century on strike ballots, but it is inventing a whole new outdated balloting process by which unions will have to post out forms to all members subscribed to political funds and require an opt in to continue – every 5 years. Why you’d devise such an outmoded system from scratch in a digital age is pretty hard to understand.
A cynical reading of it (but the only logical one) is that the Conservative party have noticed there’s a way to make it as hard as possible for people to contribute to union political funds, many of which (though not all) help fund the Labour party, and to make the whole process as expensive and difficult for unions as possible. Luckily Conservative voters don’t seem to be as divisively partisan as their party’s leaders. 47% of current Conservative voters supported unions to use online balloting in our poll – not far behind the rest of the population.
Frances O’Grady seems to have hit the nail on the head:
“Let’s be clear, the government’s Trade Union Bill is not about improving industrial relations. Ministers simply want to make it harder for working people to get fair treatment at work. The government should be looking to work positively with workers and their representatives, not dreaming up new ways to make their lives harder.”