The government should let union members choose how they vote

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 15th March 2016

Tomorrow, 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 will reach one of 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 is struggling to justify the Bill’s restrictive approach (it makes no provision for secure online voting in any union election) given they are accompanied by new thresholds – 50% for ballots and 40% for strike action involving ‘essential public services’.

These bars will be unnecessarily hard to meet if postal voting is the only option unions can lawfully able offer their members. Postal-only ballots are also significantly more costly compared with on-line alternatives.

Established democracies can struggle to keep pace with social or technological change. The UK was the last modern democracy to switch from household to individual electoral registration, and it was only last year that the UK allowed online registration for public elections – something that was a huge success, with nearly half a million people registering in just one day before the 2015 general election)Digitally savvy younger people generations for whom online campaigning, banking, and shopping is the norm are particularly likely to see our pen-and-paper democracy as hopelessly old-fashioned.

Modernising public elections has genuine challenges, given the need to balance security and secrecy whilst maximising participation. For that reason, whilst postal voting has become established, online has been treated with far more caution – and rightly so. But private elections have seen more innovation, with a whole host of organisations combining electronic, postal and in-person ballots in an effort to maximise turnout.

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, and if the Bill passes in its current form they’ll be the only civil society organisation so heavily constrained by law in its methods of voting. That’s some serious red tape.

The Government is also wrong to put strike ballots and all other trade union ballots in the same regulatory box. Strike ballots have an obvious public interest which extend beyond the private interests of the unions themselves. But these fall under the same rules as internal union elections. In other words, there are just as many restrictions on the way union members vote for a candidate to become general secretary as there are for members to vote to strike. You have to ask whether this is fair, given almost no other private organisation – from the Bar Association to the Conservative Party and everything in between – is told by the government how to elect people to its own offices.

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 vote in these elections, they need every opportunity to exercise their democratic muscle. 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.

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