By TUC Policy Officer Tim Sharp
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‚Äôre 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‚Äôs¬†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‚Äôs democratic processes.
As Sir Ken noted,¬†some disabled people, such as those with sight or mobility restrictions,¬†are¬†‚Äúsubstantially disadvantaged‚ÄĚ¬†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‚Äôs 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‚Äôt require participants to leave their home.
The failure of legislation to keep up with modern behaviour¬†hasn‚Äôt¬†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‚Äôs¬†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¬†home working.
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‚Äôs democratic process.
There is no substantive case¬†why¬†union members¬†shouldn‚Äôt¬†have access to the same modern balloting methods as other organisations.
It‚Äôs¬†time to bring union balloting into the 21st century.