PCS achieved its largest ever turnout for a postal ballot for with 85% voting Yes for industrial action. However, the 41% of the membership’s votes was insufficient to allow any action to take place.
This is due to the Trade Union Act 2016, which upholds “the ability to strike while reducing disruption to millions of people”, by ensuring “industrial action only ever goes ahead when there has been a ballot turnout of 50%.
So, is a threshold of 50% fair? Does the act allow unions to maximise the turnout if it’s so vital to democracy?
The answer to both those questions is, unsurprisingly, no.
The first thing to note is how very much of UK democracy doesn’t require a 50% turnout, or indeed have any lower threshold. You can be an MP, AM, MEP, local councillor or police commissioner on much lower turnouts, and with none of those elections having any requirement similar to that placed on trade unions. The last national assembly turnout was 45%; in the 2018 English local elections the BBC estimated a 36% turnout based on 800 wards, and in the last European elections the turnout was even lower at 34.19%.
Many would also remember the zero turnout in one police commissioner ward in Newport; the lowest turnout in those elections was a measly 17%.
The second important question remains; if the Conservative government considers it so vital that our ballots are democracy proofed, do they allow us to legitimately maximise our vote? While the general elections in the UK get a healthy 65% or more turnout, that is supported by a strong postal vote (around 15% – 7 million votes in the 2010 general election). This is a reflection of the fact that all meaningful elections in the UK allow that complementary way of voting to maximise turnout, with the traditional vote at the ballot box being augmented by postal voting, yet the act does not allow a similar process in union votes.
Fierce lobbying did gain some concessions, including a requirement for the government to conduct an independent review on electronic balloting for strike ballots – but there is no legal requirement to its introduction.
We are fortunate in Wales that, though it couldn’t help us in this UK-wide ballot, the administration here considers the act anathema to good industrial relations and has sought to oppose it with the trade union bill – “The Welsh Government considers the effects of the trade union act 2016 will prove socially divisive, lead to more confrontational relationships between employers and employees, and ultimately undermine public service delivery”.
PCS and TUC will of course engage in any consultation on possibly allowing electronic balloting in strike voting, as well as continuing to fight for a decent pay rise.