Strikingly stupid

Conservative ministers used this week’s public sector strike as an opportunity to revive the idea of further legal restrictions on industrial action. Raising the threshold to 50 percent of  a those entitled to vote seems to be the most talked-about option and the one championed by Boris Johnson.

Union leaders and others were quick to point out that the mayor and most MPs were not elected by a majority of their constituents and that many did not even have the support of the majority of those that voted. The Coalition’s mandate is based on the votes of less than 39 percent of the electorate. If we were to apply the 50 percent rule to general elections we’d never get a government at all.

Of course, elections are different from yes/no votes, which is why referendums often have high thresholds, rather than simple majorities. The presence of many parties in elections mean that different rules apply.

There is one other way in which parliamentary, mayoral and council elections are different from strike ballots, though, and it’s a much more important one than the argument about majorities.

Political elections are binding on everyone. Unless you decide to emigrate, you have to abide by the laws the new government makes, regardless of how small its percentage of the vote was.

Strike ballots, on the other hand, are binding on absolutely nobody. If your union votes to strike, you are perfectly free to ignore it, as lots of public sector workers did on Thursday. There is nothing the union or anyone else can do about it. Unions are prevented by law from disciplining members who refuse to go on strike. Yes, there may be some peer pressure but if that extends to intimidation, the perpetrators could find themselves facing criminal charges.

All a strike ballot does is make it legal for those that want to go on strike to do so. That’s all. Everyone else can ignore it.

Putting the threshold up to 50 percent would mean that all abstentions would be counted as no votes. An apathetic majority could therefore stop a committed minority from exercising their right to strike.

Strikes are unpopular and people usually moan about them. Having said that, polls suggest that the public was broadly behind yesterday’s strikers. Withdrawing the right to strike, which, in effect, a 50 percent threshold might do, is a big step. No government has ever banned strikes in peacetime. Even in the aftermath of the General Strike, when there was a fear of communist insurrection, the Baldwin government’s anti-strike laws did not go as far as David Cameron is suggesting today.

If anything, the current law on strikes is biased in favour of those who don’t wish to strike. Whatever the result, they don’t have to. Those that want to strike must get a majority vote first. To tilt the balance any further against them would be unfair.

There is no need for more legal restrictions on strikes. There is no crisis and no threat to security or public safety from industrial action, nor is there likely to be in the near future. There is no compelling case for changing the law. Unless you count the desperate need for an eye-catching election policy as a good enough reason.

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12 Responses to Strikingly stupid

  1. P Hearn says:

    The solution to the general election problem might be to copy the French electoral system, and have a second ballot of the top two candidates a week after the first (assuming no candidate secured more than 50% of the vote at the first ballot).

    This gives the electorate time to consider how to vote tactically if their first choice is not available. It also solves the problem of the winning candidate not getting 50%, because by definition, in a two horse race the winner got 51% or more. It’s clean and simple, and avoids the complications of other voting systems that we’re told would confuse an alarmingly large section of the electorate.

    As for strikes, it seems an employment contract doesn’t apply, so perhaps they’re not worth the paper they’re written on? If workers wish to withdraw their labour, they should be free to do so at any time, and the employer should equally be free to offer the work out to other suppliers who may wish (or not) to take the opportunity at the given price.

    If you hate your job, get another one. If you can’t get another job, consider whether that says something about you. Alternatively, try creating a job for yourself. Granted, you’ll be pilloried on this blog for the idiocy of being self employed, but actually, for some, it can work well. There’s no question that labour is more productive and earns more en masse when organised into larger corporate units, (per Adam Smith’s pin factory example), but folks only have themselves to blame when they stick in a job they hate but do nothing to change their circumstances.

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  3. David says:

    Elegantly put P Hearn .
    Of course the other benefit of self employment is that it allows for one to find ones true value in the market place , a place within which we are all ultimately to be valued one way or another and which all disgruntled public or private employees should try .

  4. anubeon says:

    “…but folks only have themselves to blame when they stick in a job they hate but do nothing to change their circumstances.”

    This would be the point of collective bargaining (which wouldn’t work if employers could sack the lot en masse) and industrial action. Striking trade unionists ARE doing something about their circumstances, in attempting to demonstrate their discontent and the necessity of themselves.

  5. John says:

    Except that even Adam Smith admitted that spending all day making the thirtieth part of a pin was a boring, mindless and repetitive task. If that is the way of life you want, go for it !!!
    The two sentiments by P Hearn and David highlight just how individualised Britain has become as a society, mainly – I suspect – among the younger generations.
    One day, Britain may have to face a vast external communal challenge – and then what?
    Will we – as a society – have sufficient time to find the communal response to that external threat or will the new self-centrism make us fatally vulnerable to such threats?
    The trades union movement won legal exemptions after many decades of hard fought for struggle.
    If the Tories manage to get the already tightened-up law changed, they may well find that it will be counter-productive in that it may increase trade union solidarity and loyalty among its members.
    Remember when the Tories introduced the need for ballots for unions if they wanted to make payments to political parties? How did that turn out?
    As far as I know, not one single union has ever lost one of these ballots.
    Do the Tories seriously want to see strike votes which command more than a 50 per cent positive turnout and affirmative vote?
    They won’t be able to be so dismissive about the strike votes then, will they?
    They may well also find that the heightened level of support among trade unionists will also see a greater level of support for the strikes among trade unionists and the wider public.
    Put simply, the Tories would be idiots to introduce these proposed changes – but when did that sort of critique ever stop them from blundering on in stupidity before?

  6. David says:

    I realise John that it was unintended but having drawn my state pension for several years I feel deeply flattered by being referred to as part of the “younger generation” , unintended or not , thanks !
    As regards the proposed increased threshold for union votes and other measures I can tell you that my few years as a trade union representative convinced me it will result in far less disruption and strikes . But the votes absolutely must be secret and beyond reproach . I can’t speak for conditions now but during my experience the bully and raised voice often won out over reason . Trade unions are not always the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists they’re made out to be .

  7. John says:

    I think the Thatcher and subsequent reforms went far enough. A very simple acid test is to look at growth in earnings, which currently stands at less than 1 per cent per year while prices are rising at more than double that amount, meaning that almost everyone is working for steadily falling real incomes. Of course, these figures are calculated on the basis of average incomes.
    For those in the top earner bracket, it is a very different matter. The actual reality is that people in the middle income region are steadily diminishing while those in the lower earnings bracket are actually working for less and less with the passing of time, meaning that the working poor is on the rise, as is evidenced by the rise in demand for food banks. Logical, is it not?
    This is no time to be weakening working people or their representatives. If we want to see a better society we need to see a fairer society and weakening trade unions will not achieve this.

  8. David says:

    Not correct . Whether we like it or not we are all in an international market place and it simply proves , @John , that we have been paying ourselves far too much . The fact is that the west must become slightly poorer whilst the rest get slightly richer and there’s a way to go yet . Like all harsh economic truths the sooner that’s acknowledged the better . Trade Unions ? Largely irrelevant .

    • John Dowdle says:

      Paying ourselves far too much? Get real!
      The only people being paid far too much are those at the top of the income tree.
      They get paid millions and receive free shares and private pensions and all other sorts of perks while people like you try to blame the lowest paid in society for our problems.
      You could not make it up!
      How much have we just paid out on an over-budget aircraft carrier that has no aircraft?
      How much is going to be spent on a nuclear weapons system which is largely useless?
      How much will be squandered on HS2?
      And you think the problem is caused by low paid people whose real living standards have been falling for at least 7 years now – unlike their social and economic “betters” – or “superiors” ?
      You could not make it up!
      Ordinary people did not cause the banking crisis – that was caused by your rich City friends.
      You know: those crooks who manipulated LIBOR, mis-sold financial products, manipulated currency and commodity markets all for their own selfish benefit.
      And still, you choose to blame low paid people for our country’s economic ills.
      You could not make it up!

    • Anders says:

      @David – John has been talking about inequality within the UK between the top 1% and the rest; you seem to be ignoring this and focussing on inequality between the UK (average) and the developing world (average). This seems a non-sequitur.

      I, and John, might well agree with you that the UK needs to grow more slowly in order to converge more with global average NGDP per capita (I’m not convinced). But even if we do agree on this, the fact remains that in-country inequality is high and rising. Perhaps you don’t care about this (you given the impression of being comfortably-off). But for anyone who favours even a modest narrowing of inequality within the UK, it is hard not to see trades unions as part of the solution, even if their relevance is in question (by virtue of the sadly-low levels of unionisation).

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