strike ballot threshold

Glass Houses and Throwing Stones


Owen Jones — a man talking an enormous amount of sense in the debate on trades union and strike ballot thresholds.

There was an interesting moment on last week’s version of Any Questions, Radio 4’s political panel show (think Question Time, but on the radio and with a different Dimbleby), there was an interesting little exchange regarding strike ballots.

In response to a question about the PCS trade union calling a strike for the day before the Olympics begin, and coming immediately after a spout of reactionary, right-wing nonsense from Kelvin MacKenzie (if not the most insufferable and repugnant men in the media today, then certainly one of), the microphone came to Owen Jones. After he had corrected Kelvin on the reasons for the strike, and doing a sterling job explaining why the workers had no choice, Jonathan Dimbleby asked him this question:

JD: “Does the fact that only 20% were balloted, and only 50% of the 20% were in favour of strike action, weigh with you or not?

OJ: “That would strike out a lot of elected politicians in this country including Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London.

Which, aside from being very true, is an interesting point. If we take practising what they preach as the standard that our politicians should be aspiring to, then the people calling for the introduction of strike ballot thresholds should, themselves, surely be commanding a majority of the overall electorate in their constituencies. Right?

So I decided to check. I started with the elected politicians in the cabinet, calculating how much of their electorates voted for them. I’ve put the turnout for each MP’s constituency there too, just for added context, and have colour coded the results: green for half or more of the vote; orange for less than half but more than a third; and red for less than a third. All results are rounded to one decimal place, and you are welcome — nay, encouraged — to check my maths:

Name Position

Turnout (%)

Support of total electorate (%)

David Cameron Prime Minister

73.3

43.1

George Osborne Chancellor of the Exchequer

70.6

38.5

Nick Clegg Deputy Prime Minister

73.7

39.4

William Hague Foreign Secretary

67.2

42

Iain Duncan Smith SoS for Work and Pensions

66.5

35.1

Vince Cable SoS for Business Skills and Innovation

74.8

40.7

Danny Alexander Chief Secretary to the Treasury

64.9

26.4

Theresa May Home Secretary

73.7

43.9

Michael Gove SoS for Education

70.0

40.3

Eric Pickles SoS for Communities and Local Government

71.9

40.9

Justine Greening SoS for Transport

64.4

34.1

Ed Davey SoS for Energy and Climate Change

70.4

35.1

Andrew Lansley SoS for Health

74.8

35.5

Ken Clarke SoS for Justice

73.6

37.7

Philip Hammond SoS for Defence

66.4

37.1

Caroline Spelman SoS for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

63.3

32.7

Owen Paterson SoS for Northern Ireland

65.7

33.8

Cheryl Gillan SoS for Wales

74.6

45.1

Jeremy Hunt SoS for Culture, Media and Sport

73.4

43.1

Michael Moore SoS for Scotland

66.4

30.1

Andrew Mitchell SoS for International Development

67.9

36.7

Francis Maude Minister for the Cabinet Office

72.1

38.0

Oliver Letwin Minister of State in the Cabinet Office

74.6

35.5

David Willetts Minister of State for Universities and Science

63.0

32.2

Sir George Young Leader of the House of Commons

69.6

40.6

Patrick McLoughlin Chief Whip in the House of Commons

73.8

38.4

Dominic Grieve Attorney General

70.0

42.8

There’s a distinct lack of green in that table, isn’t there?

And bear in mind that these are cabinet ministers, the leading politicians of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. Most of them represent “safe seats” where they far outstrip the nearest rival candidates. Backbenchers who represent more marginal constituencies are going to command even less support.

So, after this enlightening little revelation, I thought I’d do a bit more. Below is a second table, showing the same information with a number of other elected politicians who have called for or expressed support for introducing a rule requiring a ballot on industrial action to reach a threshold level of support in order to be valid.

(N.B. Aidan Burley is the chairman of the “Trade Union Reform Campaign”, an organisation dedicated to attacking the trades union, and staffed by a variety of comic characters, of whom Burley is by far the most tragically hilarious.)

Name Position

Turnout (%)

Support of total electorate (%)

Boris Johnson Mayor of London

38.1

19.6

Matthew Hancock MP for West Suffolk

64.6

32.7

Aidan Burley MP for Cannock Chase, Chairman of the TURC

61.1

24.5

Dominic Raab MP for Esher and Walton

72.0

42.4

Priti Patel MP for Witham

70.2

36.6

Nick de Bois MP for Enfield North

67.1

28.4

Conor Burns MP for Bournemouth West

58.1

26.2

Damian Green Minister of State for Immigration

67.9

36.7

Still no green. And a good deal more red.

Now, I actually agree that there’s a problem with the turnout in the PCS ballot. But the solution isn’t curbing the democracy of the unions, but trying to encourage better participation in the democratic process. Owen Jones himself went on to suggest a number of good, constructive ideas:

What we need to do is change our very stringent anti-union laws to allow workplace based balloting, to ensure as many workers can take part as possible. Text balloting, email balloting. At the moment the problem is with the postal ballot system, is that most people don’t get round to filling out their postal ballot and sending it off.

Maybe I’m just a dangerous lefty subversive, but I think there’s a certain irony in people who don’t have majority support complaining that the unions don’t have the support of the majority of their members. This kind of hypocrisy could be stemmed with the introduction of a more proportional voting system — but none of the Conservative politicians listed above supported such a move when it was put to a referendum in 2011.

There is a well-known proverbial saying, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones“. And I think there are a lot of politicians on the government benches in the House of Commons who should think very carefully upon it.

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