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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 4:45 pm on 10th February 1988.

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Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton 4:45 pm, 10th February 1988

I joined my trade union 50 years ago, and when I joined it I found that it was a very democratic organisation. I joined the Hertford and Ware branch of the union and the branch chairman was a distinguished local JP. He was portly, wore a bowler hat and a fob watch, and always came to branch meetings. He was a distinguished member of the local community.

Our union meetings were totally democratic. The only other branch of the union that I have ever been in was the Huyton branch just outside Liverpool. In the branches to which I belonged, there was always total democracy. As I said earlier, when we had a ballot for union officials or to decide any other issue, it was conducted in a most democratic fashion. Members who did not attend the branch meeting on the 'star' night when the elections took place, were fined. It was made absolutely clear that every member of the union should attend when there was to be an election for the appointment of a local official, a district committee or, in our area, a management committee, national officers or district or full-time officers.

Under the Government's policy, we know that if union members are fined by the union they can go to the court and be recompensed for not voting on democratic matters. We believed that it was important for people to vote and to attend branch meetings for elections to union positions, and I regard that as absolutely democratic. The chairman of the branch read out the names of all the people who were standing for election and they only stood if they had a minimum number of nominations from a number of branches.

The meeting was told that there were so many votes for George—I almost said George Brown, but he was not in my union. There might be five people standing and the votes for each of them were recorded. Every union member had a right to put down on a piece of paper the number of votes that were cast for each candidate. The details were sent to the national executive and a list was sent by them to each branch showing the votes that were recorded for each candidate. That meant that, if the votes did not tally, that if some branch official tried to swing the vote, every union member could see that and could say, "Hang on, that is not accurate," and the matter could be raised. That is democracy. That is what we grew up with in my trade union. It was always like that.

5 pm

When we had an issue such as a wage demand in the Liverpool area, we used to have a great aggregate meeting at which all the members of every branch in the area were called together. We used to use the Liverpool stadium. The negotiators would come together to explain to the members what they had been able to achieve for the membership. If the membership did not like it and said, "That is not good enough," they would vote it down at the meeting. The negotiators then had to go back to the employers and say, "Our membership is not having it," and they would have to discuss it again. If, in the last analysis, the membership said that it was not good enough and the employers said no, a ballot would be taken there and then in the branches and we would then take strike action throughout the entire area. To me, that has always been the basic democratic principle.

However, that changed once the union became part of the Union of Construction and Allied Trades Technicians. It was changed by the new people who began to organise UCATT, and who brought various unions together. However, after a period, the membership said no and the union reverted to the democratic election of officials.

Nobody needs to tell our movement about democracy. We grew up with it. We created it and we fought for it. Over the hundreds of years since our movement was formed, some of our members have died or have been sent to Australia in chains because they fought for democracy in this country.

We do not need any lectures about democracy from this Conservative Government. In fact, the Government have consistently been the people who have restrained democracy in the country. Over the years, the Conservative party has fought every effort to improve the democratic rights of the people. Therefore, we do not need any lectures.

My hon. Friends have tabled a reasonable and, if I may say so without being insulting — I think it is right — a moderate amendment. I would have gone much further. However, it does not make any difference whether the amendment is moderate, because the Government steamroller over everything, whether it is moderate, Left-wing, hard Left, soft Left or anything else. It does not make any difference because, if it is democratic, the Government steamroller over it. That is the Government's attitude.

Although the Government are saying to the unions, "Go back to the membership," I advise them that we never needed to go back to our membership; we are the membership and have always been the membership. We have always encouraged our people to participate totally in the life of our unions.

We do not need to be told about democracy. As union members, if we want changes, we have things called rules revision conferences. Every few years we change our constitution. We do so by going back to the members who vote. If the members want to change to a postal ballot, that is their decision. It is not a decision for the Government — it is the members' right. When the Government impose that on union members, they are being authoritarian.

Although I know that, in a sense, I am unfortunately talking to the wind, I ask the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "Not on this side."] No, not on this side, but unfortunately I am talking to the wind as far as Conservative Members are concerned. In any case, the quicker we get television in here, the better. Look at all the empty Benches, including our own. When we are discussing a matter of great importance for democracy in this country, hon. Members are not here. To me, such matters mean more than anything else because we are talking about the rights of ordinary working people who have always fought for democracy, supported it and died for it. That is the point about our people.

Those who fought and died in the last war were not all members of the Conservative party. When I was a member of the Royal Air Force, I spoke in Banbury on the eve of a general election poll. I said then that to listen to the Tory party, one would think that Mr. Churchill had won the war on his own. What had the rest of us been doing? We all fought that war for democracy. We all fought against Nazism. That is why the late Harold Macmillan made the point that the miners, the dockers and the others who fought for democracy were our people.

We have nothing to be ashamed of. We are the ones who have consistently fought for democratic rights in this country. We do not need any lessons from the Conservative party. If hon. Members are honest about democracy, they will vote for my hon. Friend's modest proposal.