THE BLOG

Government's Double Standards on New Trade Union Law

27/05/2015 12:10 BST | Updated 27/05/2016 10:59 BST

Announced in the Queen's Speech, the Government wants to push into law a new definition of what constitutes a legitimate win in a democratic vote. A trade union bill will say that to be legitimate any trade union ballot result calling for strike action will have to have achieved a turnout of at least 50%, plus any strike vote will have to have been backed by at least 40% of all those eligible to vote, i.e. everyone with a vote, not just those who cast a vote.

The problem is that if Members of Parliament decide that industrial action is illegitimate if it fails to win the support of at least 40% of all eligible voters, they will call their own legitimacy into question.

The current government is made up entirely of Conservatives, but not only did that party fail to win the support of 40% of the electorate, it even failed to win the support of 40% of just the people who turned up to vote. In fact the only party since the War to have won the support of over 40% of the electorate was the Labour party in 1951, and bizarrely they lost that election. Every other party to contest a postwar election - including the Conservatives who won in 1951 - failed to reach the 40% threshold now proposed.

If the 40% test is applied to MPs elected earlier this month, most would fall short. Of the Conservatives' 330 MPs, for example, 274 failed to win the support of at least 40% of their electorates. Half of the MPs in Cabinet would not have been elected, including Business Secretary Sajid Javid who is the minister who will shepherd this new law through the Commons. As is too often the case, it is one rule for them and another rule for everybody else.

Outside of Parliament, Boris would have failed to win election as Mayor of London under this test. Is he an illegitimate Mayor, according to those who support these new rules? Not a single police and crime commissioner would have been elected. The list goes on and on.

Looking back in time, Thatcher would have failed to win election in 1979, 1983 and 1987. Not only did her Conservative party fail to win 40% support amongst the country's voters but she herself failed to win that level of support even in her own constituency. Would the Conservatives pushing this new law consider her to have been an illegitimate MP leading an illegitimate government?

Even Churchill would have failed in his attempt to be elected as MP for Epping in the last general election before the Second World War, meaning he wouldn't have been our wartime prime minister.

Ireland's Yes vote in their referendum at the weekend, giving the green light to marriage between same-sex couples, would also have failed the Government's proposed new test, with under 40% of Irish voters turning out to back the idea.

If passed, the new rules won't even help achieve what they set out to achieve. Take the vote last year by the Royal College of Midwives over whether to take strike action in a dispute over pay. RCM members voted 82% to 18% for strike action, on a 49% turnout. Under the existing rules that was a clear mandate for action; under the proposed rules it would fall short because under 50% of eligible voters took part. But if, say, 1,000 more midwives had taken part in the ballot and they had all voted No, then turnout would have easily topped the 50% mark and the ballot result would therefore be deemed legitimate - so, more people opposing the strike would have meant that the strike could go ahead. Confused? That is because these new rules make no sense.

If the Government is genuinely concerned about the level of turnout in these ballots, one positive, constructive step it could take would be to modernise the rules so that, for example, those taking part can vote online. Currently those taking part can only vote by post. Make it easier for people to participate and you will help nudge turnout up and make any result more representative of the union's membership.

I believe unions would work with the Government on changes like that. What I am sure unions will oppose, and the union of which I am chief executive will certainly oppose, is a draconian clampdown on the legitimate use of industrial action dressed up as a concern for turnout.

It is odd that a party which earlier this month won the support of just 24% of the electorate and which claims a mandate to govern for the next five years believes that a union that wins exactly the same level of support in a ballot on industrial action would not have a mandate to go on strike for five hours.

The problem that those wanting to bring in these new rules have is that by calling into question the legitimacy of strike ballots that don't meet certain arbitrary thresholds, they call into question their own legitimacy.