Friday 9 May 2014

Hypocrisy and ridiculous consequences: The Tory plan to impose turnout thresholds on trade union ballots

David Cameron has stated that he is considering plans to plough ahead with Boris Johnson's ridiculously hypocritical idea of banning strikes unless 50% of trade union members participate in the strike ballot.

Boris Johnson's hypocrisy

It's not difficult to demonstrate exactly how hypocritical this kind of turnout requirement would be. We only need to look at the 38% turnout in the 2012 London mayoral election which saw Boris Johnson re-elected as mayor of London*, to see that Tories like Boris Johnson have absolutely no objection to sub-50% turnouts when the results suit them. The fact that Boris Johnson even accepted the job as mayor of London after such a poor turnout clearly demonstrates that he's only bothered turnout thresholds if he can cynically use them as a way of disempowering his political opponents.

More Tory hypocrisy

There are countless other political examples of low turnouts, in which Tory politicians have happily taken up their positions without a hint of concern over sub-50% turnouts.

PCC elections

The most shocking example of ridiculously low turnouts in UK politics has to be the farcical 2012 PCC election, which featured the lowest turnouts in British electoral history. Not a single region managed better than a 20% turnout, and several PCCs were elected with first preference backing from less than 5% of the eligible electorate. Four of the eight PCCs who accepted their jobs despite being backed by less than 5% of the electorate were Tories (Nick Alston, Essex 3.91%, Graham Bright, Cambridgeshire 3.96%, Matthew Grove, Humberside 4.21%, Richard Rhodes, Cumbria 4.54%).

It would be an absolute travesty for the Tories to impose an arbitrary 50% turnout threshold on trade union ballots, yet allow a load of their fellow Tories to sit in highly paid taxpayer funded jobs after fewer than 5% of people even bothered to vote for them.

Local elections

Since the 1980s the average turnout at local elections has rarely scraped above 45%, and in the last set of local elections in 2013 the turnout was just 31%. These appallingly low turnouts mean that i
f a 50% turnout threshold were applied to local elections, the vast majority of local councilors would find themselves out of their jobs, including several thousand Tory councilors.

If the Tories are happy to have thousands of Tory councilors across the country elected on less than 50% turnouts, it would be a display of grotesque hypocrisy were they to apply 50% turnout thresholds to trade union ballots.

European Elections

Turnouts at European elections have never risen above 40%. If the 50% rule was applied to European elections, every single MEP would be out of a job.

If the Tories are happy to have a load of Tory MEPs elected to the European Parliament on sub-50% turnouts, they'd be a pack of stinking hypocrites to enforce a mandatory 50% turnout threshold on anyone else.


Political apathy is an ever growing problem in the UK (mainly due to the hopelessly outdated and unrepresentative Westminster voting system) but overall turnouts at general elections have not yet fallen below the pathetic 61.4% turnout in 2005. This does not mean that all MPs would be safe under a 50% turnout threshold. It is a very long time since any by-election managed to attract a turnout above 50%, and even in the 2010 General election, several MPs were elected on a sub-50% turnout, including Anne Macintosh, the Tory MP for Thirsk and Malton, who was elected on a 49.9% turnout.

If the Tories are happy for Anne Macintosh to sit in parliament after she received the votes of just 26.4% of constituents on a sub-50% turnout, they'd be a pack of hypocrites to impose a 50% turnout threshold on the trade unions.

Parliamentary votes

Aside from the actual elections, another element of the political system that suffers from appallingly low turnouts is parliamentary votes. A quick look through the voting records in the House of Commons and the House of Lords reveals that a significant percentage of legislation is passed with sub 50% turnouts from MPs and Lords.

The laziness of MPs is so extreme that they have even devised a "pairing system" so that Tory and Labour MPs can pair up to both skip the parliamentary votes without affecting the outcome. One of the few MPs to refuse to play this ludicrous game is the Labour veteran Dennis Skinner who said that he wouldn't provide cover for Tories
"to go swanning off to Ascot or to their boardrooms" instead of doing the actual job they were elected to do.

If the Tories are happy to see their own legislation pass through the houses of parliament without it being thrown on the scrap heap if the number of politicians actually voting on it falls below 50% at any stage of the process, they'd be a revolting bunch of hypocrites to apply a 50% turnout threshold on the trade unions.

Ridiculous consequences

I've clearly established that it would be grotesquely hypocritical for the Tories to apply a 50% turnout threshold on the trade unions, without applying similar measures to the political classes. The revulsion at the brazenness of this hypocrisy is so strong that it can prevent us from looking at the proposals in greater detail, and noting how desperately flawed they are.

The first thing to note is that it is transparently unfair to classify abstentions as "no" votes. If people don't vote, it means they don't mind either way, and that they are happy to go along with the outcome decided by those who do vote - not that they explicitly oppose the proposal. Applying an arbitrary turnout threshold turns all of these "I don't mind either way" responses into "no" responses. It is extremely illiberal to introduce legislation designed to apply a completely different meaning to people's decisions.

The most ridiculous consequence of applying an arbitrary turnout threshold to a binary yes/no vote is that it actually turns an abstention into a more powerful vote against the proposal than a "no" vote. In order to explain how this happens I'll use a couple of examples.

In both examples a hypothetical trade union with 100 members (a nice round number) is balloting on strike action.

If 26 members vote for strike action, and 24 members vote against it, the Tories arbitrary 50% threshold is met and the strike can go ahead on a 52% to 48% split.

If 49 members vote for strike action, but everyone who opposes the strike simply withholds their vote instead of explicitly voting against it, the Tories arbitrary 50% threshold will not be met, and the strike will not be allowed to go ahead despite the facts that 100% of people who voted in the ballot voted in favour, and almost double the number of union members actually voted in favour of a strike as in the first example.

In scenario one 26% of union members voted in favour of the strike, and under these Tory proposals the strike could go ahead, but in scenario two 49% of union members voted in favour of the strike, but by these ridiculous rules, the strike would not be allowed.

These examples clearly illustrate that the application of an arbitrary turnout threshold on simple yes/no votes warps the whole process in such a way that abstention becomes a stronger vote against the proposal than explicitly voting "no" to it!

The result of this Tory scheme would be that anyone who opposes the strike would be a fool to actually vote against it, because they'd have a much better chance of preventing the strike action by abstaining and hoping the turnout threshold isn't met!

If these Tory rules are imposed, and the ludicrous situation is created that an abstention becomes a stronger vote against a strike ballot than an explicit "no" vote, the result will be that those who oppose the strike (and have any sense at all) could simply abstain, meaning that the strike wouldn't just need a 50% turnout, it would need at least 50% of members to explicitly vote in favour of the strike for it to go ahead.

To put this into perspective a little, we can look at the Tory MP with the safest parliamentary seat of all, who is William Hague. In 2010 Hague was elected by the people of Richmond, North Yorkshire with 62.8% of the vote on a 67.2% turnout. This means that the Tory with the safest seat in the entire country was elected with approval from 42.2% of the electorate, yet the Tories want trade unions to achieve 50%+ approval in order to go on strike!

The plan to impose an arbitrary turnout threshold on trade union ballots will warp the process so dramatically that to abstain will be a stronger vote against the proposal than to explicitly vote against it, and it will impose an approval threshold on trade unions that not even the Tory MP with the safest seat of all can achieve in his own constituency.

Idiocy or malice?

When we think about the reasoning behind the imposition of such a warped and blatantly unrepresentative voting system, we come up against that age old question. Are the Tories doing this out of idiocy, or out of malice?

It is perfectly possible that the intellectual lightweights behind this proposal (Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, David Cameron) are such lazy thinkers that they haven't even considered the fact that applying arbitrary turnout thresholds to simple yes/no votes results in the ludicrous situation that abstention becomes a more powerful vote against the proposal than an explicit "no" vote.

It seems more likely that they are planning to impose such a ludicrously warped, unrepresentative and unworkable system on trade union ballots simply in order to further reduce the power of the unions to stand up for workers rights.

Either the Tories are too thick to realise that converting abstentions into more powerful votes against the proposal than explicit "no" votes is a ridiculous thing to do, or they do realise how ridiculous it is, but it's actually part of their plan to shift the balance of power even more in the favour of employers over their employees.

Why should abstentions automatically count as a "no" vote?

An interesting thought experiment is to consider what the Tory reaction would be if it were proposed that instead of arbitrarily counting abstentions as super-no votes, we count them as super-yes votes, and unless 50% of the trade union explicitly votes against strike action, the strike would go ahead.

The Tory reaction to such a plan would be apoplectic, they'd whine endlessly that abstentions are abstentions, not explicit votes in favour - yet it is absolutely clear that arbitrarily redefining an abstention as an explicit "yes" vote is precisely the same kind of abuse of process as this Tory plan to arbitrarily define an abstention as an explicit "no" vote.

What is David Cameron's idea of a serious investigation?

David Cameron has stated that he is going to seriously consider the proposal, but any serious consideration would uncover the fact that setting an arbitrary turnout threshold on a simple yes/no vote results in the ludicrous situation that abstentions are redefined as more powerful votes against the proposal than explicit "no" votes. If Cameron goes ahead and puts this plan in the 2015 Tory manifesto, it will be an absolutely clear demonstration that David Cameron's idea of a "serious investigation" is to do whatever the hell he wants, no matter how ridiculous the consequences.


It shouldn't matter whether you approve of trade unions or not, if you've got the faintest respect for the way democratic processes should work, you've got to be appalled at a plan designed to turn abstentions into more powerful votes against a proposal than explicit "no" votes.

Even if we ignore the absurd consequences of imposing arbitrary turnout thresholds on simple yes/no votes, it is absolutely clear that if Boris Johnson and the Tories are insistent on imposing turnout thresholds upon the ordinary working people who make up trade unions, but they're unwilling impose the same rules on the political classes, they're a bunch of disgustingly self-serving hypocrites.

If the Tories include turnout thresholds for trade unions in their 2015 manifesto, but refuse to apply similar requirements on the political classes (Westminster politicians, local councilors, PCCs, MEPs, mayors of London and participation in parliamentary votes), it will be absolutely clear that this is just another campaign in the ongoing Tory war against the working people of the UK, making their current propaganda campaign to rebrand themselves as "the workers' party" seem all the more ludicrous.

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* it is important to note that the 38% turnout in the 2012 London Mayoral election does not equate to a 38% approval rating for Boris Johnson. Only 44% of the 38% who actually voted cast their vote in favour of Boris Johnson, meaning that his approval rating was just 16.7% of the eligible electorate.

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