Under the Tories’ proposed new law, strike ballots would need a 50% turnout for industrial action to be legal. But in the case of ‘essential’ public services – health, education, transport and fire services – 40% of those voting have to have voted in favour. In other words, 80% which is the combination of the general turnout proposal and the new 40% yes vote must have voted in favour. That would make almost all strikes illegal, particularly in large and dispersed workforces where postal ballots rarely achieve this. This is a blatant attack on the rightful role of trade unions in being able to protect their members against exploitation at work – several recent polls have consistently found that more than 70% of the public believe unions are ‘essential to protect workers’ interests’.
There are several other arguments against this vindictive piece of legislation. The proposed rules don’t apply in any other elections. If only ballots with a turnout of more than 50% are to be taken as valid, then the election of many politicians including the Mayor of London would be dismissed as invalid. The new Thatcherite Secretary of State for Business was elected on a lower turnout than 50%. Indeed the current Tory government was elected on only a 22% vote of those entitled to vote in the recent general election.
A turnout threshold is irrational: it makes abstentions more powerful than votes against. Thus a ballot backing action with an exact 50% turnout would be deemed invalid if just one no vote had abstained instead. Moreover setting unrealistic thresholds for strike ballots is especially unreasonable when the form of balloting is restricted to postal ballots. Further, setting the bar so high for legally compliant strikes increases the likelihood of wildcat industrial action, and few employers would seriously wish to dismiss workers who take part in illegal industrial action especially if they are providing essential public services.
The UK already has the most restrictive strike laws of any advanced economy, and adding to them by imposing what is effectively a ban on strikes altogether is dragging Britain down the path adopted by dictators and authoritarian regimes. Paradoxically It may not even work. The most successful unions such as the RMT usually command high enough turnouts to be able to reach the new thresholds. The new law might even galvanise members who have not voted before in strike ballots. And the public may even be more sympathetic to strikers if they feel union members are being unduly victimised.