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Union Ballot Thresholds Pose a Greater Threat to Democracy Than Low Turnouts

10/02/2014 17:17 GMT | Updated 12/04/2014 10:59 BST

Fresh from wielding the axe on the capital's fire service, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has turned his attention to the London Underground, provoking a strike with his myopic plans to close every ticket office and slash 950 jobs.

Members of the RMT and TSSA unions voted decisively in favour of the action. But this hasn't stopped Johnson crying foul and demanding yet greater restrictions on the ability of trade unions to operate effectively in the workplace.

Amid the boilerplate Tory bluster about militant trade unionists holding the public to ransom with unreasonable demands and threats to withdraw their labour (isn't it funny how they never similarly condemn rich businessmen who hold the nation to ransom with their unreasonable demands for low tax rates and threats to withdraw their wealth?) comes a new and sinister campaign, led by the mayor himself, demanding the government legislate for a 50% turnout threshold for industrial action ballots.

The logic, according to Johnson - a man who won't be satisfied until trade unions are neutered completely - is that a vote in favour of industrial action cannot be legitimate if less than half of those balloted take part.

Leaving aside the argument that it is not the business of a Conservative mayor to dictate what should be the internal voting mechanisms of an independent trade union, let's examine Johnson's 'logic' for a moment.

For a start, it complacently assumes that all those who didn't vote would, had they decided to do so, have voted against industrial action. But there is absolutely no reason to believe this. There are a multitude of reasons why not every ballot paper is returned, ranging from plain laziness to a belief that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. An abstention is not, by default, a 'no' vote.

If there was evidence that union members who abstain in ballots are more likely privately to oppose industrial action, Johnson's argument might have a scintilla of legitimacy. But no such evidence exists. In fact, as was demonstrated by the solidity and effectiveness of the Underground strike, it is perfectly reasonable, when extrapolating results of ballots for industrial action, to conclude that the votes cast are an accurate representation of the views of those balloted as a whole.

An overwhelming 77% of those who voted in the RMT ballot did so in favour of strike action. The mayor prefers to present the figures in the context of the entire number of ballot papers distributed, so he argues that only 30% supported the action and that such a 'minority' should not be allowed to hold sway. But, by this formula, only 9% actively voted against the strike, so how could it be considered in any way democratic for this much smaller number to win the day?

One might also question the merits of Johnson's desire to impose a tougher criterion on trade unions than that which applied in his own election for mayor. When he won the vote in 2012 - on a pledge not to close Underground ticket offices, by the way - he did so on a turnout of 38%. Moreover, the 1998 referendum asking Londoners whether they wanted a mayor at all achieved a mere 34% turnout. In fact, of the 15 referenda held across England and Wales where local people voted in favour of creating a directly-elected mayor, only one achieved a turnout above 50%.

Supporters of the threshold campaign dismiss these comparisons, claiming, perversely, that they are unfair because politicians don't hold the kind of 'coercive' power possessed by trade unions. Really? The mayor of a political and economic blue-chip metropolis cannot influence the lives of his electorate to the degree that the general secretary of a trade union can?

They also make obscure points about the setting of quorums being a matter of routine for meetings of public bodies. But, of course, quorums simply require a minimum attendance, not a minimum vote return. It is perfectly possible for a vote to be carried at a quorate meeting even if a majority has abstained.

A simple majority is all that is required for every other type of vote: local and parliamentary elections, referenda, company shareholder meetings, police and crime commissioner elections, The X Factor grand final. Why should trade unions alone be placed in a straitjacket and forced to abide by more stringent rules?

The most dangerous consequence of any new law on ballot thresholds would be for democracy itself. Boris Johnson and his supporters would claim they are encouraging greater participation in internal union decision-making (as though that were really their motivation). But what would it say about a government's commitment to democracy and voter participation if that government passed legislation which potentially conferred a value on an abstention equal to that of an affirmative vote?

What wider inferences could be drawn from the message that if you drop your ballot paper straight in the bin, or spoil it, or let your dog tear it to shreds, or leave it behind the clock on the mantelpiece until the deadline for voting has expired, there's no need to worry, because that act of voluntary non-participation might well, in the final shake-up, be treated with the same significance as the positive vote of someone who took the trouble to play an active role in the democratic process?

It would tell us that the government in question was more interested in manipulating the democratic process for its own ends than respecting the outcome of legitimate ballots. And, in the final analysis, the ramifications for democracy of that kind of cynical and insidious approach are more worrying than any threat presented by low turnouts.