The government should let union members choose how they vote
Today, the Chancellor will present his budget for the year ahead. But it’s not the only important thing happening. Though it won’t be dominating the headlines, the government’s controversial Trade Union Bill is reaching its final stages in the House of Lords.
What is represents is a last chance for the government to reconsider its position on some seriously contentious parts of the Bill. And one of those things is the ban on unions allowing members to vote online – a restriction that no other civil society group faces.
Restricting members to postal voting whether for strike action or for internal elections is exceptionally out of touch with the way modern life is lived, i.e. smartphone in hand.
The government’s proposal of new thresholds for strike votes – 50% for ballots (plus an extra 40% yes vote hurdle for strike action involving ‘essential public services’) is doubly restrictive if they won’t let unions use modern methods and postal voting remains the only option unions can lawfully able offer their members. Postal-only ballots are also significantly more costly compared with on-line alternatives.
Millions of people – members of professional bodies, campaign groups, political parties or private clubs – now habitually vote electronically. Political parties, NHS Foundation Trusts and other large organisations have found that by offering a mix of different voting methods, participation can be improved. Yet in all this, trade unions are an outlier, as they are the only civil society organisation which are prohibited from using electronic ballots for elections. That’s some serious red tape.
Politicians from all parties are rightly concerned about stubbornly low turnout in local and general elections, affecting the mandate of the government of the day. But if people are going to start voting in these elections again, they need every opportunity to practice using their democratic rights. For union members, that means taking part not just in strike ballots but in internal elections as well. The more ways people have to vote, the more likely it is they will vote – that’s a fairly reliable rule of thumb.
If the Government is serious about wanting higher turnout for strike ballots (the Bill’s demands for high turnout thresholds would suggest as much), then a greater range of methods for voting should be available. From a democratic perspective, every possible avenue towards participation should be opened up.
The government should do the right thing and make a commitment to democratic engagement and moving with the times – they should let union members choose how they vote.