Cameron’s new strike laws are more radical than Margaret Thatcher’s

David Cameron: taking a hard line on trade union action. Andrew Winning/PA Wire

The Tory manifesto pledge to change the law on strike ballots are more radical than any of those introduced by Margaret Thatcher. If the government is re-elected and the proposals become law, industrial action will become a rare occurrence. In the past the ACAS chief conciliation Officer, Peter Harwood, argued in 2010 that tightening would inflame the situation and could lead to more wildcat strikes. While the Tories appear determined to teach the unions a lesson, the Lib Dems are critical of the proposals. Could it be that Clegg and Cable are trying to cement their centre-ground position? The wheels of the election wagon turn ever faster.

The changes to balloting laws introduced by Thatcher in the 1980s gave union members a level of democracy not seen previously. Changing ballots from a show of hands in the company car park to a fully postal vote removed potential intimidation by union firebrands. The government reimbursement of the cost of postal ballots meant that unions were not saddled with the costs. When reimbursement was reduced to zero the membership was used to the new system and had no appetite for changing it back. Sadly voting in industrial action ballots has declined in the same way as political elections.

The introduction of minimum turnouts in ballots for industrial action has been on the cards for more than three years. It could be argued the unions have brought this on themselves by pursuing strike action on low turn-outs (NUT 27%; PCS 20%; POA 24%). There has been a good deal of confusion over the Government’s intentions. Some politicians have argued that a majority of union members must support industrial action, others that a majority of those entitled to vote must support action. Now we have some clarity.

The proposal that ballots should be subjected to maximum validity periods was also on the cards. The National Union Teachers has been singled out for criticism by David Cameron, Michael Gove, and Frances Maude all too frequently. The NUT (and other public sector unions) may have been complying with the law as it stands, but they should have seen the writing on the wall. They could have conducted another ballot to demonstrate reasonableness, so why didn’t they? Cost is a consideration, but it was more likely the fear of an even lower turnout or that the “yes” vote would be lower. Under the new arrangements it could well be that once one ballot is concluded the next will need to be organised before any progress has been made in negotiations, just in case.

The NUT has drawn particular criticism from the government. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Arguably the most complex proposal concerns the content of the ballot paper. Currently union members vote for strike action or action short of a strike by answering two questions with a simple yes or no. In future the ballot paper must contain specific details of the dispute and voting on every aspect of the dispute and the exact form of industrial action to be take. In multi-issue disputes the ballot paper will resemble a supermarket till receipt!

Legal action

This could also fertile ground for employers seeking High Court injunctions. The statutory reporting of the ballot result to employers will inevitably require details of the number of votes cast, “yes” votes, “no” votes and the number of spoilt papers for each separate issue. If Unite struggled with reporting 11 spoilt ballot papers in the British Airways dispute in 2010, how on earth will they cope with this?

Extending the notice to the employer from seven to 14 days gives more time for contingency plans to be put in place. This might backfire and spur unions to adopt guerrilla tactics; calling strike action then calling it off at the last minute. Removing the requirement for the first action to take place within 28 days of the ballot does appear sensible as it gives more time for negotiated settlement. Also, with the limited validity period it no longer serves any real purpose.

Reforming the rules on picketing is a bit of a red herring. The current statutory and code of practice provisions are perfectly adequate, they just need to be enforced more stringently when necessary. What also appears to have been overlooked is that picketing is not just about trying to stop people working, it is also about encouraging them back to work.

The TUC general secretary, Frances O'Grady, has written to the business secretary Vince Cable making the case for ballots to be conducted electronically using smart phones and computers. Unions are able to meet their statutory obligations of informing those entitled to vote of the outcome of a ballot by e-mail and text message and the cost of ballots would be reduced significantly. Given referenda conducted in this way see response rates of up to 96% moving to electronic voting could strengthen the unions’ mandate. Achieving turnouts well in excess of the 50% proposed minimum in this way would give unions’ greater legitimacy for industrial action. I can’t see the Cameron and Maude agreeing to that.