September 27, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
Boris Johnson has raised the issue of strikes that he doesn’t regard as democratic. He points out that at the moment, as far as current legislation is concerned, all that needs to happen is a secret ballot in which more than 50% of those who vote, elect to strike, no matter what the turnout. This means that if 20% of union members vote and 51% vote yes, there can be a strike. So, 10% of a workforce could theoretically shut down schools, or fire stations, or the tube. Now, this is an extreme situation, but it is possible, and Johnson has asked for a 50% turnout threshold in order to make strikes legal. He isn’t asking for 50% of the entire workforce to have voted for the strike (ie for a 50% yes on a 100% turnout), but just for 50% to have simply voted.
The response of union officials was to label Johnson a hypocrite,pointing out that under his proposed rules of 50% turnout, he would not be The Mayor. After all, he was elected on turnouts of 44% and 37%. There is barely an MEP, local councillor or Police and Crime Commissioner who was elected on anything like a 50% turnout. Most referenda don’t feature a 50% turnout either, yet their results are legitimate and we are bound by them. In fact, apart from the most important referendums (Northern Ireland 1998, Scotland 2014) and General Elections, turnout in any British election tends to not be even near 50%. So, unions ask, if those results are legitimate, why wouldn’t a fairly held strike ballot be legitimate, whatever the turnout?
Yet I believe this is comparing election apples with strike ballot oranges. The reason I believe that is that the outcome of those two ballots affect different people. What I mean by this is that the results of elections for MEPs, local councillors, Mayors, MPs, Police and Crime Commissioners and as well as referendums directly affect the lives of those who vote or don’t vote on them. So if you choose not to vote, the result of that is you cannot really complain about what those elected then go and do. Those people will make laws or carry out policies that affect you.
But those who vote to go on strike are voting not just to have a day without being paid, they are voting to seriously disrupt the public’s life. The result of a strike ballot can shut schools, shut down the tube, stop fire services, and in the future possibly shut down some hospital services. I won’t have voted in most of those ballots, but the results of them directly affect me. If a union member doesn’t vote in those ballots, the results of them directly affect me. So, whilst there are perhaps some good arguments against imposing turnout thresholds on strike votes, pointing at the lack of turnout thresholds in other elections is a logical fallacy.