Zac Goldsmith MP at Conservative Conference 2015. Photo: AP Photo/Jon Super
Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral nomination exposes the hypocrisy in the trade union bill
Richmond Park MP Zac Goldsmith has caused his fair share of headaches for his party since he entered Parliament in 2010. He rebelled over the lobbying bill. He opposed the government’s plans to sell off England’s national forests. He took a leading role in the campaign against Heathrow expansion.
However when he takes the stage at Conservative conference later today, as their newly elected candidate for London Mayor, the problems he’ll pose for the party leadership will be ones of their doing rather than of his.
Goldsmith won a convincing 70% of the vote, in a contest that was organised online. 9,227 votes were cast in all, in a ballot supervised by Electoral Reform Services (one of the independent scrutineers also licenced to conduct union ballots as it happens).
So far so good. It makes sense that a modern political party should be seeking to engage with their electorate in the way in which more and more people want to conduct much of the administration of their personal lives – from online banking and grocery shopping to income tax self-assessment. Indeed the Labour leadership and mayoral candidate elections had a well used online voting facility as well, so that’s pretty par for the course.
However, the means of Goldsmith’s elevation came as a bit of a surprise to us in the trade union movement. You see, we’ve been asking for the right to use online balloting for years now, but it’s been continually ruled out.
Goldsmith’s party are putting a major piece of legislation through the commons at the moment – the trade union bill. Amongst a huge range of unpleasant proposals that we won’t go into here, it demands that when unions conduct strike ballots they should get a majority vote, subject to a turnout of at least 50% of the affected workers. That’s an extra hurdle not faced by other types of votes, and one which has the bizarre effect of actually making an abstention carry greater weight against a proposal than a ‘no’ vote.
The stated aims are to ensure that strike ballots have a higher turnout, and are representative of a greater proportion of the membership. Which makes it all the stranger that the government are ignoring something that could raise turnouts at the drop of a hat – online balloting.
Postal ballots are so last century. They’re expensive to organise (as Goldsmith knows first hand, given the estimated £60k of his own small change that he put into polling his Richmond Park constituents on whether to let him run for Mayor). And as often as not they end up put aside pending a visit to the post office and forgotten until the deadline has passed, or just scooped into the bin with the junk mail.
But the government remain unconvinced. During the bill’s second reading, BIS Secretary of State Sajid Javid ruled out online balloting, when quizzed by MPs from all parties, including his own. He said:
“I am concerned about fraud and that the identities of people voting in a secret ballot may be revealed. In fact, the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, which looked at the use of digital apparatus in elections, also shared those concerns. I do not think it would have been appropriate to suggest such changes.”
And when pressed on online voting as recently as Sunday’s Andrew Marr show, the Prime Minister said:
“The Speaker of the House of Commons did put together a commission to look at electronic voting and the conclusion of that commission was that it wasn’t safe from fraud. So I think there are problems with that approach.”
I wonder if that would be the same Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission that said:
“By 2020, secure online voting should be an option for all voters”
And of course, a commission that in any case was looking into introducing online voting in the context of the gold standard secure method of physical voting in a controlled polling station, rather than the rather wobblier standard of voting by post.
But this is all rather by the by. If they really don’t believe online voting is secure enough for union members to decide whether to take strike action, and potentially cause inconvenience by withdrawing their labour, then it seems inconsistent that the Conservative party should be willing to trust the internet with choice of a candidate who has a decent chance to become Mayor of London, and have a major impact on the lives of millions of Londoners day in, day out for four years.
Or as Frances O’Grady rather more plainly put it:
“This is hypocrisy. Online voting is the way to bring union balloting bang up- to-date and help ensure all workers have a voice in the workplace. In a world fast moving towards ‘digital by default’, the government should end the ban on unions running votes online. ”
So we’re happy to join in today’s chorus of congratulation to Zac Goldsmith on his digital nomination victory. But please Zac, when it comes to the trade union bill amendments in Parliament over the coming weeks, doing the consistent thing and adding to your list of honourable rebellions with a vote for online balloting for unions would be much appreciated thanks.
And for anyone other than Zac Goldsmith who might be reading this, please take a moment to sign our petition to BIS Secretary Sajid Javid, calling for unions to be allowed to join the Conservative party and make use of modern voting methods.
(And for the hardcore trade union bill geeks out there, there’s no turnout threshold to compare with the proposed 40% requirement for union votes, but 9,227 mayoral candidate votes equate to 6.2% of the Conservative party’s membership for 2014, or – given anyone on the electoral register could vote if they had £1 to spare – 0.16% of the London electorate from 2012).