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Three years of silence – the government’s response to electronic balloting must be lost in the post

Published date
You can order your shopping, pay your bills and even vote in many political party ballots online. But when it comes to voting in union elections, the government insists only paper postal ballots will do.

Today marks the third anniversary of a government-commissioned review by Sir Ken Knight that proposed pilots of electronic balloting in trade unions. 

But the required response from ministers must be lost in the post - because we’re yet to hear a peep from them. 

Personal computers have been around for 45 years.  

The first home broadband was installed 20 years ago. 

And online video calling has surged during the coronavirus pandemic. 

But the law governing trade union ballots remains stuck firmly in the pre-digital era.  

Unions are legally required to conduct key votes, such as elections of union leaders and whether to take industrial action, by postal ballot alone. 

The case for change 

There has long been a strong case for allowing unions the option to use e-balloting if they wish, including in those statutory votes that are covered by increasingly extensive legal constraints. 

After all, huge parts of many people’s lives are conducted online - from managing their finances to ordering the weekly shop. 

Many now expect any important communications to arrive in our inboxes and on our phones 

And many workers find that postal ballots exclude them from their union’s democratic processes.  

As Sir Ken noted, some disabled people, such as those with sight or mobility restrictions, are “substantially disadvantaged” by postal balloting. 

Young workers are more likely to move home and find their post is delivered to an old address. 

And many workers work away from home for long periods. 

Others can do it  

Online democracy has spread rapidly through other spheres of public life. 

Already organisations like the National Trust conduct electronic ballots, and it’s how the Conservative Party selects its London mayoral candidates.  

The coronavirus pandemic led to a surge in online democratic processes, such as the move to virtual company meetings. 

And a majority of the British public believes that unions should be able to conduct balloting electronically. 

Yet currently, for most important votes, unions must send a postal ballot to every member at their home address, and members can only vote by completing their ballot and posting it back. 

 This process is expensive, time-consuming and does little to boost participation. 

Covid-19 has only increased the case for allowing a balloting method that requires less manual handling of paper, takes the pressure off the postal system and doesn’t require participants to leave their home. 

Unions innovating 

The failure of legislation to keep up with modern behaviour hasn’t stopped trade unions innovating in the digital sphere. 

Many use online voting to seek indicative member views on issues such as pay offers or potential industrial action. 

This is particularly important in those sectors with far-flung members such as mariners and pilots. 

Unions are also using electronic methods to encourage members to exercise their democratic rights. 

And initiatives such as the TUC’s Digital Lab are helping unions explore how to recruit and mobilise members who are living lives increasingly detached from the formal workplace, such as by homeworking. 

Time for change 

All of this makes a mockery of rules that only serve to hamper the ability of union members to engage with their union’s democratic process. 

There is no substantive case why union members shouldn’t have access to the same modern balloting methods as other organisations. 

It’s time to bring union balloting into the 21st century. 

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