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.