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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 Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North 4:45 pm, 10th February 1988

Clause 13 is not quite the full-frontal attack on democracy that clause 3 was on Monday. However, the greatest insult that I can muster is to say that it runs it damn close. This clause contains a distillation of one of the key facets of Tory party policy —hyprocisy. It is hypocritical because the Tory party and the Government seek to corner the key words, the buzz words of "democracy" and "freedom". Their arguments have been exposed in Committee. However, on this occasion the buzz word is "choice" because if there is one thing that the clause does, it is to remove from 10 million trade unionists the possibility of choice in the way in which they conduct their elections.

It is important that, in moving the amendment, we make it clear that it is we in the Labour party who seek to restore choice to trade unions, against the Government who seek, by clause 13, to remove the possibility of choice. It is important to place one or two facts on the record. I had the privilege of serving in a national campaign related to political funds, in which all the unions did not follow one view. They chose many different ways in which to express their wish either to retain or not to retain political funds.

Some unions chose workplace ballots—for example, the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, the Union of Communication Workers, the National Communications Union, the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union, the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff, the Power Loom and Carpet Weavers and Textile Workers Union, the Ceramic and Allied Trades Union, the Transport and General Workers Union, the Confederation of Health Service Employees, the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers, the National Union of Domestic Appliances and General Operatives, the National League of the Blind and Disabled, the National Union of Footwear Leather and Allied Trades, the National Graphical Association, the Transport Workers Union, the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers-TASS, the National Union of Public Employees, the National Union of Mineworkers, the Fire Brigades Union, and the Scottish Carpet Workers Union.

All those unions chose, of their own volition, a workplace ballot, which was carried out under the tight rules under which unions must administer their ballots and, in addition, the even more scrupulous and tighter rules that were put forward by the Government's own Trade Union Act 1984.

Other unions exercised their choice in a different way and, by and large, chose to go for a postal ballot system. They include the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers-EFC, the Electrical, Electronic, Plumbing and Telecommunications Union, the National Union of Seamen, the National Union of Scalemakers, the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians, the Rossendale Union of Boot, Shoe and Slipper Operatives, the Musicians Union and the Union of Construction and Allied Trades Technicians. All exercised their choice in that way.

The one outstanding facet of those ballots, other than the fact that all those individual unions won their political fund campaign, was the turnout—the ability of people to turn out to vote for the unions in those nationwide ballots. It averaged out that 69 per cent. of those who could have voted did vote when it was a workplace ballot, but in postal ballots the average was 39 per cent. across those unions.

We are not being selective with figures. They are for national ballots held in 40-odd different trade unions. The figures stand the test. Clearly, a turnout of less than two thirds of the turnout possible under a workplace ballot was achieved by postal ballots. That is not to dismiss postal ballots. Trade unions have different circumstances and should be able to decide, but postal ballots produced a lower turnout.

The Government are saying, "We shall decide how you will ballot in future." They say to all those unions that have decided to use a workplace ballot, "I am sorry, but we are imposing on you a postal ballot, so the likely reduction in your turnout will be one third." The aggregate for the whole trade union movement will be 3 million, so 3 million working people will be robbed of the ability to cast a vote in key elections or in political fund campaigns. That degree of disfranchisement by the Government is unprecedented.

Indeed, in the past decades the Government have been loth to extend the franchise. It has taken about 100 years to force them to allow working people to have the vote in general elections to choose their Government. Even now, they are not content to maintain that position and are reducing the ability of trade unionists to vote in key elections.