Electronic Voting in the Trade Unions, Pete Glover. Reproduced from Issue 1 of the journal.
Confusion reigns on the Left over the issue of trade unions and electronic voting. Public attention was drawn to electronic voting with the totally unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn to Labour leader. A flood of people were encouraged to join the Labour Party for £3, most of whom did so just to vote for Corbyn. Voting online suddenly became a new weapon for working class people.
In contrast to this, election turnouts for trade union leaders have fallen to incredibly low levels. In the recent election for NUT Vice-President, 93% of members didn’t vote. The election for the General Secretary of the GMB saw 96% of members not voting. In the recent Unison election, which had four candidates and was probably the most hotly contested union election, 91 % of members didn’t take part in the process. These low turnouts are a warning to the Trade Union movement. The low turnouts in elections, conducted on the basis of a postal ballot, have been welcomed by the Government and have been used to further the anti-Union agenda of the Tories. But there has been little written on the Left about the issue of electronic voting.
No group on the Left, apart from Marxist World, has put forward a programme to tackle not only the low turnouts and the legitimacy of these elections, but also a programme to tackle the Government thresholds on ballots designed to undermine strike action. The new anti-Trade Union legislation means that a threshold of at least 50% of Union members is required for ballots on industrial action to be valid.
Marxist World supporters and sympathisers have been at the forefront of the campaign for Unions to adopt electronic and text-message voting, not just in Union elections, but also in strike ballots. You would think this was a mainstream view and that this was something the Unions would have been trying to implement for ages, but sadly this not the case.
The argument against Unions taking up text voting is weak. It is true that it is against the law for Unions to conduct elections and strike ballots other than by postal ballot. Our answer is that Unions should do both. Unions should comply with the law and send out postal ballots in order to fulfil their legal obligations. But there should be a campaign by all the Unions, including the TUC, for all future ballots to be conducted by text alongside the postal ballot. This should also involve a huge campaign involving rallies, where Union members bring their mobile phones, similar to the workers and students in Hong Kong, whose impressive night-time rallies, using their mobile phones to light up the protest, were beamed around the world. Unfortunately, such a campaign is not even supported by any Left organisation at this time.
The arguments in favour of voting by text-message are overwhelming. In comparison with other types of electronic communication, texting is easily the most popular method. An email-type voting system, although used for the election of Corbyn, could easily be a step backwards. There are significant problems as only around 20% of emails are ever opened. Furthermore this open rate is actually in decline. (MarketingProfs 2012) On the other hand, SMS open rates are over 99%. 90% of all messages sent by text are opened within 3 minutes. (Tatango 2013) The mobile phone is, therefore, the obvious way to engage union members in electronic voting.
But where are the Union leaders on this issue? As far back in the mists of time in 2003 we heard this: “Trade union leaders, representing millions of UK employees, will today [January 2003] email Alan Johnson MP, Minister for Employment Relations, asking him to end the outdated anti-union ban on online voting for major union ballots.” (TUC 2003)
All the major trade unions, Unison, the GMB, the forerunner of Unite, the CWU (headed then by Billy Hayes, who was sympathetic to the Socialist Party), the PCS etc. all formally backed the idea of electronic voting. Then over a decade later we heard this: “The TUC has today [July 2014] written to Business Secretary Vince Cable urging him to modernise the rules that govern strike ballots and bring union voting methods into the 21st century.” (TUC 2014)
Then last year we heard Len McCluskey of Unite issue this “challenge” to the Government: “The head of Britain’s biggest union has made a surprise offer to David Cameron to abandon its opposition to a key part of the crackdown on union rights outlined in the trade union bill – if ministers allow modern and secure online voting on public service strikes. [McCluskey:] It is my understanding that the Electoral Reform Society, which acts as independent scrutineer to most industrial action ballots today, believes there is no difficulty in guaranteeing workplace balloting procedures which are secret and are secure against any possibility of fraud or intimidation. Were you to be able to accept this modern and democratic proposal to update balloting procedures then Unite, for its part, would be comfortable about accepting the thresholds and the time limit on the validity of ballots proposed in the trade union bill, without prejudice to our position on other elements of the legislation.” (Guardian Oct 2015)
It appears that we have had a decade of “struggle” from the leaders of all the major Trade Unions to reform the voting system. Len McCluskey even went as far as to call for civil disobedience in the face of the new Government imposed Union strike thresholds. The Guardian of March 2015 reported Red Len in a militant mood: “The Unite general secretary insisted in a speech to trade union lawyers in London that he would not respect such a law. McCluskey said: “Should there be a Conservative majority in May, there will be a new attack on trade union rights and democracy. The bar for a strike ballot will be raised to a level which hardly any MPs would get over in their own constituencies, by a government which has refused our requests to use modern, more effective balloting methods. “When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it? I am not really posing the question. I’m giving you the answer. It ain’t going to happen.”” (Guardian Mar 2015)
Don’t hold your breath comrades! McCluskey and other Union leaders quickly understood that the text-voting tactics proposed by Marxist World supporters and would put them on the spot. In order to stop this proposal from seeing the light of day, and in order for them not to actually organise such a campaign of civil disobedience, leaders like McCluskey have asked the Government to implement similar schemes so they don’t have to. “Please can we have this new voting system, Mr Cameron?” they plead. The “campaign” for electronic voting has spanned 13 years! That’s some campaign.
Some leaders of Left organisations sneer at Marxist World’s ideological “purity” and “utopianism”. Ironically, the leader of Britain’s biggest Union is the biggest utopian of them all. Has any Government meekly given in to any Trade Union demand? Everything the Unions have ever won for the working class has had to be fought for. No “deal” with the Government can ever come close to delivering democracy for the Trade Unions.
The Trade Union movement must take up the issue of text voting with urgency. If a serious campaign was taken up by the grass roots in the Unions, this would be an important step in forcing the Trade Union leadership to take up a mass campaign to defy the anti-Trade Union laws. Direct defiance is one thing. But if defiance was backed up by an independently validated text vote, which mobilised hundreds of thousands in defence of the right to strike, then the prize would not just be a method of voting. We would see a campaign of action that could lead to mass industrial action in defence of the democratic rights of the working class and undermine the legitimacy of this Government.
Guardian. Mar 2015, Len McCluskey issues warning over higher threshold on strike ballots, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/mar/20/len-mccluskey-issues-warning-over-higher-threshold-on-strike-ballots
Guardian. Oct 2015, Unite chief offers union bill deal in return for online strike ballots, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/oct/03/len-mcluskey-unite-deal-david-cameron-trade-union-bill
MarketingProfs. 2012, Email Open and Click Rates: Benchmarks and Trends, http://www.marketingprofs.com/charts/2012/8560/email-open-and-click-rates-benchmarks-trends
Tatango. 2013, SMS Open Rates Exceed 99%, http://www.tatango.com/blog/sms-open-rates-exceed-99/
TUC. 2003, Union e-Day: 7 million to win from online voting, https://www.tuc.org.uk/union-issues/unions-online/union-e-day-7-million-win-online-voting
TUC. 2014, Bring strike ballots into the modern age and let us go digital, says TUC, https://www.tuc.org.uk/workplace-issues/employment-rights/bring-strike-ballots-modern-age-and-let-us-go-digital-says-tuc