Theme: Political Economy | Content Type: Digested Read

Why Strike Ballots are Undemocratic

Ben Saunders



| 6 mins read

Since 2016, new legislation governing strike ballots has made it more difficult for trade unions to achieve a mandate for industrial action. Such a mandate now requires that a majority of members vote in the ballot. This has some surprising consequences.

The mandate for industrial action does not depend straightforwardly on levels of support amongst members. Sometimes voting against industrial action can result in the turnout threshold being met, when it otherwise would not have been. Thus, opponents of action would sometimes be better advised to abstain than to vote against it. Consequently, it is not always clear how they should vote. Whatever they do, their actions may be counterproductive. Further, even when they do know how best to promote their desired outcome, there may be a conflict between voting strategically and expressing their true preferences. There is now no guarantee that the outcome of a ballot accurately reflects what people really want.

Rights and democracy

The turnout requirements imposed by the 2016 act are undemocratic, because the legal mandate for industrial action no longer only depends on how union members vote. Rather, it also depends on how many union members vote.

These twin requirements are intended to make it harder for unions to organise legal industrial action. The procedure is not neutral between industrial action and no industrial action. Those seeking a mandate must satisfy an additional turnout requirement that their opponents do not need to satisfy. This tips the scales against action. However, this turnout requirement also produces some rather more surprising results.

A real-world example

In recent University and College Union (UCU) ballots, Newcastle University saw 496 members vote in favour of strike action, which was 80.1 per cent of the 619 votes cast. This may look like overwhelming support, but it fell short of a legal mandate because overall turnout was only 49.5 per cent, narrowly missing the required threshold.

On the other hand, the University of Reading narrowly met the turnout threshold (370 votes out of 731, or 50.6 per cent), with 228 (61.6 per cent) of these favouring strike action. Here a small difference in turnout (50.6 per cent, compared with 49.5 per cent at Newcastle) was crucial. Because Reading was just over the required threshold, the result is that Reading UCU satisfied the legal requirements for strike action, despite lower levels of support for a strike amongst those who did vote. Indeed, Reading also had a smaller percentage of members supporting the strike (31.2 per cent, compared to 39.7 per cent at Newcastle).

The Trade Union Act 2016 imposes ballot rules which give a mandate to Reading but not Newcastle, despite there being more support for industrial action in Newcastle. This mandate is not based on the wishes of union members. This is one reason why these ballots are undemocratic. But the turnout requirement can also make it difficult for members to decide how they should vote, even if they know what they want.

Strategic voting and abstention

Unions sometimes fail to achieve a mandate because of insufficient turnout. In cases like that of Newcastle University, more votes against the strike may have led to the turnout threshold being reached, without changing the majority decision. So, someone voting against industrial action here could bring it about that there was a mandate for action, when there would not otherwise have been one had they abstained instead.

The problem for opponents of action is that, without knowing how others will act, it may not be clear in advance whether it is better for them to vote or to abstain. Even those who understand the voting system, and can predict likely outcomes with reasonable accuracy, may find themselves placed in an awkward situation. While conflicts between different reasons for voting are not unique to strike ballots, confronting voters with such dilemmas is an undesirable feature of voting systems.

Similar problems apply also to those who have no preference. They may want some way to excuse themselves from the decision making, leaving the decision to others. Ordinarily, one can do this by abstaining. But, when sufficient abstentions can serve to block a mandate for industrial action, abstention is no longer a neutral option.

Given the current balloting rules, the best option for those who neither support nor oppose action, but who do want to support democratic decision making, may be to cast a spoilt ballot. This counts towards meeting the turnout requirement, without influencing the vote for or against action. This, in turn, contributes to ensuring that the decision is made according to the wishes of union members, resisting the 2016 act's attempts to frustrate democratic decision making.


Democratic decisions are supposed to reflect the wishes of group members. But these wishes have to be communicated through votes. Where balloting rules make accurate votes potentially counterproductive, and incentivise people to vote strategically in order to make their preferred outcome more likely, then people's votes may not express their true preferences. Outcomes determined by those votes may not be what people really want.

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    Ben Saunders

    Ben Saunders is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Southampton.

    Articles by Ben Saunders