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Requirement of Postal Ballot for Certain Ballots and Elections

Part of Orders of the Day — Employment Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:26 pm on 10th February 1988.

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Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 4:26 pm, 10th February 1988

I beg to move amendment No. 10 in page 16, line 40, (Clause 13), at end insert— 'except where it is reasonable for the union to believe, and it does believe, that a ballot conducted under the terms of section 3 of the 1984 Act would result in a substantial increase in the number of members participating in the ballot by comparison with a ballot conducted entirely by the postal method.'. The amendment seeks to allow a trade union, where it is reasonable if it believes that a workplace ballot would result in a substantial increase in participation compared to a purely postal ballot, to be entitled to use the workplace ballot.

Clause 13 as drafted will oblige unions to hold ballots for a political fund and for elections to the principal executive committee by postal ballot only. Our main objection to the clause is that there is no reason to suppose that postal ballots are inherently more democratic than are workplace ballots, or a combination of the two systems. Indeed, there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

Research produced by John Leopold in the Industrial Relations Journal last year, when he carried out work in regard to the political fund ballot that had recently taken place, reached the following findings. The average turnout in 38 unions using the workplace balloting method was 30 per cent. higher than the average for unions using the postal method. Only one union using a postal ballot achieved a turnout of more than 50 per cent., while only two unions using workplace ballots had turnouts of fewer than 50 per cent.

It is notable that those findings were not seriously disputed in the Green Paper. Chapter 5.13 of the Green Paper tacitly accepts that many unions will achieve better turnouts with workplace ballots than with postal ballots. Paragraph 5.13 merely claims, rather feebly: workplace ballots cannot guarantee a higher turnout". Of course, no one claims that they can. We merely argue that one reason unions should be free to choose them is that they tend, in almost every instance, to produce higher participation. Since the Government always talk about choice, how about a bit of choice for trade unions?

Paragraph 5.13 lets the cat out of the bag. It says: even if … workplace ballots do produce higher turnout levels they are not without … serious disadvantages. The rate of participation that most people would think was central to democracy is not the vital issue for the Government. They are happy to see the turnout reduced by clause 13. In many unions it would be reduced by up to one third. What concerns the Government so much?

Paragraph 5.13, which we discussed at considerable length in Committee, gives two examples of workplace ballots which have allegedly led to manipulation. The first, and most significant, is the Transport and General Workers Union general secretary election, which was rerun after an investigation by John Garnett of the Industrial Society found some irregularities. I point out that those irregularities were in fewer than 0.1 per cent. of the branches, or fewer than one in 1,000, but that is not something that we should ignore. Indeed, we do not.

Mr. Garnett did not find sufficient evidence of abuse to warrant a re-run. In fact, the union took the decision only after the personal intervention of the successful candidate, Mr. Ron Todd. The best that the Green Paper can make of this case — far and away the most important case that it cites—is that it suggests a need for more secure electoral arrangements. Of course, the Opposition agree, and so does the Transport and General Workers Union. That is why the union, without any prompting, tightened up its procedure between the first general secretary ballot and the second, going considerably further than Mr. Garnett had recommended.

Does the Minister seriously believe that postal ballots are not, in theory at least or in practice, open to just as much abuse as workplace ballots? In Committee I quoted to the Minister, but he never answered the point—we should like an answer—the words of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), when Secretary of State for Employment in 1985. On 23 April he said: I understand from the research that, in a fully postal ballot conducted by the AUEW … 200,000 members never received a vote and 20,000 received a vote to which they were not entitled." —[Official Report, 23 April 1985; Vol. 77, c. 775.]