How the world see’s what it wants to see and the narrative continues with the ever large backdrop of the deficit focussing our minds.
So as it was recently on Channel 4 news with Francis Maude debating with Union leader Mark Serwotka. The ever altruistic Maude sought to muddy the waters of debate over these damned pesky unions, run by evil commie union barons and tried to make out the unions had NO mandate to strike because of the low turn out of the membership for the vote.
Now, I have some sympathy for the wider argument of democratic accountability and legitimacy being affected by low turn outs. However, as a believer in “real” democracy as opposed to the “Westminster Bubble” version of it, surely we need to look at the wider context.
The argument goes, from Francis Maude, that the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) only had a turn out of 32%, of which 61% voted to go on strike over the proposed government changes. Please note that 61% is higher than any government has maintained in its support since WWII.
Clearly the result is emphatic and is an overwhelming majority in favour of strike action. The other unions also taking action on June 30th are the National Union of Teachers (NUT), and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), who had higher turnouts with even higher majorities in favour of strike action but still a lower turn out than 50%. In short the turnouts were 40% for the NUT with a 92% vote for strike action and a 35% turnout for the ATL with 83% voting for strike action.
Clearly, of those that voted there is severe discontent over the issues and there was certainly an emphatic support for strike action. However, is the legitimacy of the vote diminished by the low turnout?
Francis Maude argues that the low turn out means that the unions lack any authority to hold strike action, almost equating the low turn out with those that don’t vote actually wanting not to strike.
In part I have to say I have some sympathy with the argument put forward. Low turn out for me represents apathy, disinterest or worse, disenfranchisement from the political process.
However, unlike Francis Maude I do not believe this only when it suits me; when it supports my argument on a particular day of the week. I believe it when it affects the heart of our political system. When a government can get a majority with less than 36% of the vote, that allows more power to be exerted than in almost any other democratic country on earth and ride rough shot over other members of society who they do not represent, I find this reprehensible.
Francis Maude on the other hand does not. He only see’s it as a problem when he wants to exert HIS power over someone else. Our esteemed Mayor of London Boris Johnson has a similar point of view. He who was elected on less than a 42% turn out.
If we look at the great and the good in our country, European elections have a turnout of around 35% for an institution that has a substantial say in the laws of this land. The recent AV referendum had a derisory turnout of around 42% while the local elections had a low turnout generally, with some wards having turnouts as low as 20%. Some MP’s in our House of Commons also get elected with a voter turnout of less than 50% while the voter turnout in general elections has gradually declined since WWII to around 65% today.
However, what falls crashing down in the arguments of Francis Maude and co is that if we have a problem with democracy in this country it is throughout our democratic system and not with the Unions. Each Union is one democratic organisation within a complex post industrial society. It adheres to the strictest union laws of any country in Western Europe, and carries out it’s ballots based on laws brought in by previous Conservative governments.
The Unions, at least in terms of the ballot itself, have acted within the law and completely democratically within the rules laid down by the Conservative party.
In addition, Francis Maude and others seem to forget the reason low turnouts are permitted. In this country we rightly or wrongly believe that people have the right to exercise their vote or to not use their vote in any democratic election held. This has been a tradition in our democracy.
Some would argue that people should become compelled by law to vote. I have some sympathy for this stance, however, if this is the way our democracy is going to evolve, it should evolve for ALL democratic elections and not for just the ones that it seems would be politically advantageous to impose it on.
The simple fact is that the Unions have an overwhelming mandate from it’s members to go on strike whatever the rights or wrongs of the actual issues are. If people do not wish to exercise their vote that is their right to do so and in doing so they agree to abide by the decision of those who do vote. The issue of democratic legitimacy is completely bogus and and cynical . What makes it worse is that those within the Liberal Democrats like Vince Cable have also been trudging out the same line, threatening the Unions with yet more union legislation. Blackmail never looks good, especially when it is those in power who are doing it.
What Francis Maude et al should be doing is concentrating on the issue at hand and arguing their case. The pathetic rhetoric of this government never ceases to dismay and sicken me as time goes by. The vindictive nature of vilifying the disabled, unions, public sector workers and those on benefits is perhaps something to be expected by a Conservative government, but less so by a coalition.
But as I have said in previous posts, we live in interesting times.