In recent weeks, as public sector strikes over pension reforms loom large, there’s been a growing call for tougher strike laws – specifically, for some kind of minimum threshold in strike ballots for them to be valid. The Telegraph were talking approvingly about it last week, but it’s been kicking around for some time – the Telegraph was getting all moist and happy when Boris Johnson and the CBI were calling for this at least as far back as October. Tory MP Dominic Raab then really got things going back in April, introducing a Bill to Parliament which required unions to get absolute majorities of all eligible members before a strike was legal, rather than simply a majority of those who voted. He was quickly defeated, but Boris Johnson took back the anti-union baton a couple of weeks later in response to a strike announced by the RMT, and allegedly got a sympathetic hearing from Cameron and Philip Hammond when he did so. Then Vince Cable was dispatched to the GMB conference to warn those pesky trade unionists that while of course he supported the right of workers to go on strike, if they had the temerity to actually exercise that right then it was regrettably possible that all those nasty Tories who he sat round the Cabinet table with might pass some horrible anti-strike laws, and wouldn’t that be a shame? Said nasty Tories then confirmed this.
The trouble is, while something like this is easy to deride from the comfort zone/echo chamber of the lefty blogosphere, the uncomfortable reality is that a law requiring some kind of threshold for strike ballots would actually be pretty popular – and not just among the rightwing commentariat either; 73% of people in the UK think there should be some kind of turnout threshold on strike ballots (Johnson and the CBI are suggesting a threshold on the proportion of yes votes which is a bit different but would have a similar effect). This shouldn’t be surprising; superficially, the case for a threshold of some sort seems quite plausible – why shouldn’t unions only be allowed to strike if they can demonstrate a majority (or at least a substantial chunk) of their members actually want to do so? Isn’t that the democratic thing to do?
There’s no denying that a higher turnout helps any ballot achieve greater legitimacy, and that it would probably be better if turnout in strike ballots was higher than it is most of the time. But this doesn’t mean that yes votes in strike ballots with low turnouts can just be discounted. To claim that a yes vote in a strike ballot is only valid if some kind of threshold requirement is met is to make the tacit assumption that anyone who doesn’t vote does so because they don’t support the strike enough to vote for it. But why assume this? Surely it’s just as legitimate to assume they didn’t vote because they don’t oppose the strike enough to voe against it? After all, going on strike can be a costly and hazardous activity – a point frequently made by rightwingers when they’re wringing their hands at the plight of the poor workers they claim are being held hostage by unrepresentative far-left cabals of union officials. Given this, surely any union member who thought going on strike was a bad idea would vote against it, rather than abstain? There are any number of reasons why someone might not vote, and as such it’s not justifiable to interpret a failure to fill in a ballot paper as either assent or dissent. Requiring unions to treat abstentions as some kind of weaker no vote is anti-democratic, pure and simple.