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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 Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding , Newcastle-under-Lyme 4:45 pm, 10th February 1988

I support the amendment but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), feel that it does not go far enough. The same applies to this as to many other parts of the Bill: the matter should be for the unions to decide. It should be for the unions to determine how voting takes place.

What is the Government's justification for allowing the stock exchange, but not trade unions, self-regulation? The Minister has said that the unions must be controlled because of their power and influence. If that is the criterion, what of political parties? Should not their affairs be regulated by law? Does the Tory party intend to have a postal vote for elections or will it stick to conferences? Is it somehow different when it involves the Tory party rather than trade unions? Will hon. Members vote by post for the Tory chairman, or will he or, indeed, she, be appointed? Is the argument that Conservative Members and the Conservative party chairman are less important than union officials of a lower rank than president or general secretary? Are they less important than the chairman of the Conservative party?

Some unions like postal ballots. It makes sense when they have scattered membership. The last union ballot I participated in was with NUPE when I was branch secretary. We had three sorts of ballots. The first was a workplace ballot, where the members were informed with information which was readily available, then had discussions; then the union hired ballot booths from the local authority and set them up, the same as in the general election, and the members went in to vote in secret. That is how they organised it themselves, without anybody telling them to do it. The second method was by post, sent out by the union to members' homes. The response to that method was lower, but not considerably lower.

The third method was for me as branch secretary to deliver a vote to members' homes, to people such as caretakers who could not get to the workplace to vote. If the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) were still in the House, she would hear that postal ballots are delivered to members' homes and the person says, "Hello, Llin, come in and have a cup of tea." I would admire the garden, and then we turn to the vote, and they say, "Which way do you want me to vote?" As a good trade unionist, I would say, "Do what the executive recommends," or, "Have you read the leaflets?" or, "I think this, that or the other." Postal votes are influenced, and that was made clear to me as branch secretary when I went out to talk to members. It is there to be seen, and the Government are wrong in thinking that postal votes are not influenced.

It is for the union to decide where the membership should vote and how best to conduct it. Democracy consists of discussion, information and then voting. That is what we do in general elections and that is what happens in workplace ballots at all workplaces. It does not take place in postal ballots. In any case, it is easier to put pressure on people through postal ballots. Every Member of Parliament knows that calling to see somebody with a postal vote and having a little chat always pays dividends, because not only can the candidate put one side of the argument and dismiss the other side of the argument, but he does not have to argue both sides of the argument, as happens at work when people are airing their different opinions.

In the workplace, many views are voiced and members decide after listening to those views. The workplace vote generates a higher turnout because of greater informed interest, whereas the postal vote is often left on the mantlepiece. Small, well organised political groups can go around to houses with postal votes and put pressurre on people and influence the vote. It has occurred that pressure has been brought to bear on people in branches, and I would not like to see that perpetuated.

The Government, in preferring postal ballots to workplace ballots, have given way to the views of people without any practical experience at all. They have had no experience of trying to get members to take up their democratic rights. Members do not sit there waiting for the postal vote to drop through the letter box; someone must go to them to get them to vote and use the rights which have been won for them, often after a long and bitter struggle.

I understand that the Government are obsessed with postal voting because they think it will lead to a more secure electoral arrangement, but what is the use of a union having such a secure electoral system that members do not participate? Each union should decide on the best method for getting its members out to vote; it is not for the Government to decide.