Strikes need a lot more votes than Conservative leadership elections

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

The law governing votes for industrial action has been in the news lately for obvious reasons.

In short, at least 50% of eligible members of a trade union must have voted in a ballot for industrial action to be lawful. 

In England, there is a further requirement governing ballots in important public services, such as education, which is that at least 40% of all eligible members (not only those who voted) must be in favour of industrial action.

As trade unions may have tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of members, and ballots have to be conducted by post, this is a high bar.

Not content with the current legislative hurdles, the government is now attempting to introduce another barrier in the form of minimum service levels – under which trade unions can be sued and employees dismissed for action deemed to breach those levels.

It is an extraordinarily illiberal piece of legislation which smacks of a government that has lost the argument and resorted to changing the rules instead.

In education we’ve seen the results of various ballots. 

National Education Union (NEU) teacher members are set to take strike action in England and Wales after their ballots passed the legislative thresholds. Ballots held by the NASUWT fell short of the required turnout, as did a ballot in England by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). But the NAHT did pass the threshold in Wales.

Here at ASCL, we’ve conducted an informal consultative ballot, through an online vote, asking our eligible members whether they want to move to a formal ballot on industrial action. 

The turnouts in England and Wales were 54% and 61% respectively, which, if replicated in a formal ballot, would pass the turnout threshold, and the majority of respondents were in favour of moving to a formal ballot on strike action and action short of a strike.

Our Executive Committee of senior elected members will decide the next steps in due course.

However, in the meantime, it is perhaps worth reflecting on the stark difference between the democratic bar set for trade union ballots and the cursory nod to democracy which is a feature of appointing new prime ministers outside of general elections.

The ill-fated premiership of Liz Truss came about after a vote involving 142,000 members of the Conservative Party, which is about 0.3% of the total UK electorate of 46.5 million voters.

Ms Truss received just over 81,000 votes (0.17% of the total electorate), and Rishi Sunak just over 60,000 votes (0.13%).

Following Ms Truss’s resignation, Rishi Sunak was appointed Prime Minister based on the backing of Conservative MPs without the fuss of any external vote at all.

Mr Sunak is now, of course, presiding over a period in which we are seeing the greatest industrial unrest since the 1980s, triggered by ballots which are infinitely more democratic than the processes which put him in the highest office in the land.

What then is more pressing? Further legislation to make it even more difficult for working people to take industrial action? 

Or – if we’re really serious about democracy – how about a law which prevents such a squalid merry-go-round of prime ministers being appointed without most of the people they then govern having any say at all?

Now that would be a minimum service level agreement I’d sign up to.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.
Posted: 20/01/2023 09:15:55