Increasing the threshold for strike ballots is back on the Conservatives’ agenda again. Trade unions are arguing against it based on the fact that a lot of MPs and most recent governments have been elected by a minority of voters.
It’s a silly argument though. In elections with large numbers of candidates, people will inevitably be elected with minority support, especially in a time of fragmented political allegiances. Strike ballots are more like referendums where there is a straight yes or no choice. That’s why turnout thresholds are often used in referendums.
But strike ballots differ from elections and referendums in one very important way. They are not binding on anyone. In elections and referendums, everyone has to abide by the result, whether they voted for the winning side, the losing side or didn’t vote at all. In a strike ballot, even if the result is in favour of industrial action, no-one is forced to go on strike. A strike ballot is an enabling vote rather than a binding one. It simply means that those who want to go on strike can legally do so.
Let’s recap on the industrial action laws:
- No-one can be forced to go on strike;
- No-one can be forced to be a member of a trade union;
- Unions can’t discipline people for refusing to go on strike;
- Pickets are restricted to six people so it is impossible to physically prevent people from going to work and there are criminal sanctions against threatening or intimidating behaviour;
- Those wanting to strike can’t do so without a ballot and they need to get a majority of those voting to agree with them; but
- (And this last one is really important) An apathetic majority can’t stop a committed minority from going on strike.
All that sounds pretty reasonable to me. Tory grandees like Norman Tebbit and John Redwood have advised against changing the law. Well they would, wouldn’t they? After all, they were part of the Thatcher and Major governments which put most of this legislation in place.
If strike ballots were binding on all members, then there would be a case for setting turnout thresholds. But they aren’t, so there isn’t.
This proposal isn’t about setting a fairer framework for industrial relations though. It looks more like a desperate attempt to resurrect a policy from the party’s legendary heroic past in the hope that there might be some votes in it.