As sure as night follows day– and as we saw after the UNISON ballot result last week –right wing commentators and politicians will be out in force bleating loudly about ‘low turn-outs’ and ‘weak mandates’.
Here are five reasons why moans about turnouts and mandates are disingenuous:
1) People in glasshouses…
Talk of mandates is a bit rich coming from a coalition government that failed to win a clear majority at the last election. Only 23.5% of the electorate voted for the Conservatives in May 2010. Only 1 in 7 voters cast a vote for the Liberal Democrats. Together both parties failed to secure a majority of those eligible to vote. And yet, despite this lack of a mandate, they are pushing through reforms that they either couldn’t even be bothered to put in their manifesto (‘no top down reform of the NHS’ anyone) or that directly contradict those that they did (tripling tuition fees).
2) If governments really want to improve turnouts they should make it easier for people to vote
Insisting on people taking part in a home postal ballot is clunky and destroys any link between the issue at hand and the act of voting. When I vote for anything I like to be informed. I like to know what the issues are; what other people are saying about them; what the arguments for and against might be.
It would make sense if having had that discussion with my colleagues I could then cast my vote in the workplace, or maybe even on-line during my lunch-break or at the end of my shift. But the legislation doesn’t allow you to do that. Instead you have to go home, wait for your ballot to arrive, and then make a trip to the Post Box.
Is it not a bit bizarre that in the 21st century I can vote for my worst/favourite candidate on a reality TV show by phone, on-line or by text but that if I want to cast a vote in an industrial action ballot I have to do so by such a prescriptive, and for many people unintuitive, route.
If the government was serious about improving turnouts in industrial action ballots – rather than scoring political points – it would get rid of balloting ‘red-tape’ and allow people to vote in a way that suits them and would also maximise turnout. One for the ‘Red Tape Challenge’ maybe? Don’t hold your breath.
3) Not voting is not the same as voting no
The lazy and politically motivated assumption amongst many politicians and media commentators is that if people don’t vote for industrial action, they are in effect voting against industrial action. Is that really the case? Is this the way we assess voting patterns more broadly? As I’ll set out later there are lots of reasons why people don’t vote – but the fact that they don’t vote, doesn’t mean that if they had they would have voted against taking industrial action.
Just for once I’d love to see a newspaper headline which said (using UNISON’s figures) ‘6.4% of union members vote NOT to take industrial action’. Again, don’t hold your breath.
4) The ballots in the run up to November 30 are a huge exercise in democracy
We love democracy in this country. We especially love it when it takes place in other countries. Even the most right-wing newspapers go weak at the knees at the sight of people going to the polls for the first time in countries emerging from despotic regimes, and rightly so.
The exception to this enthusiasm for democracy appears to be industrial action ballots. But isn’t taking part in a collective act of democracy a good thing?
We should value the fact that – taking the Unison ballot result – over 300,000 people took part in a significant democratic event that for once had nothing to do with a TV show. And even more so in an era where we are constantly told that people are disillusioned with politics and the democratic process in general.
Such participation runs totally at odds with the government’s narrative that society is broken and civic engagement is in decline. And what a breath of fresh air the decision making processes of unions are – based on the will of hundreds of thousands, and potentially millions, of ‘ordinary’ men and women – and not the whims of a cabinet-sized group of multi millionaires.
You know what I’m going to say next. Isn’t this just about the best example you can find of the ‘Big Society’ in action?!
5) There are lots of reasons people don’t vote
In the UK we work on the basis that as well as having a right TO vote, people have a right NOT to vote. This is underpinned by the belief that no inference should be taken from a decision not to vote. These principles apply as equally to industrial action ballots as to those processes by which we elect councillors and MPs.
The reasons why people don’t vote are many and complex. Sometimes they don’t think the issue is important enough to them. Sometimes they genuinely can’t make up their minds and decide to sit the vote out and see what others think. And yes, sometimes people are just too damn lazy.
I’d add a couple of other reasons that I think are relevant to the current round of ballots.
In the last few months we’ve lost over 100,000 public sector jobs. Public sector workers are trying their best to cope with arbitrary pay freezes at a time when inflation is running at over 5% and the real costs of living for families – the petrol you put in your car, the food you buy in the supermarket, the clothes you buy your kids – are rising even faster than that.
If you work on the assumption – and I do – that a vote for industrial action is a big deal for our members even at the best of times (its a vote which costs you money), its perhaps not surprising that some people have hung back and decided not to vote.
Secondly, the stark reality is that many of our members are loath to do anything that means they can’t do their jobs – they care about their patients, their pupils, the members of the public who rely upon them. They take pride in the work and the services they deliver.
But they are having to balance that commitment and that loyalty, with the realisation that the government’s proposals on pensions will mean paying more, working longer and getting less. Its a tough call – and in the face of that call, I guess some people have effectively decided to defer their decision in the hope an agreed settlement can be reached.
In that they are not alone.
Unions have made clear all along that they are prepared to negotiate a fair pensions settlement. But what we can’t accept is imposed changes that will leave millions of public servant workers out of pocket, and will render pensions promises made over a lifetime of service meaningless.
I’m proud to be active in, and work for, a democratic movement. I’m glad that at the end of the day decisions about how what unions do, and how they are run, rest with the members. And, I’m not too keen on taking lessons in democracy from those who when they are looking for votes promise one thing, and when elected deliver another.