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 ofÂ a government-commissioned reviewÂ by Sir Ken KnightÂ thatÂ proposedÂ pilots of electronic balloting in trade unions.
ButÂ theÂ required response from ministers must be lost in the postÂ –Â becauseÂ weâ€™re yet toÂ hear a peepÂ from them.
PersonalÂ computers have been around for 45 years.Â The first home broadband was installed 20 years ago.
AndÂ onlineÂ video calling hasÂ surgedÂ during the coronavirus pandemic.Â ButÂ theÂ law governing trade union ballots remains stuck firmly in theÂ pre-digital era.
UnionsÂ are legally required toÂ conduct key votes, such asÂ electionsÂ of union leaders and whether to take industrial action, by postal ballot alone.
The case for changeÂ
There has long been a strong case for allowing unionsÂ the option to use e-ballotingÂ if they wish, including inÂ those statutory votes that are covered by increasingly extensive legal constraints.
After all, hugeÂ parts of many peopleâ€™sÂ lives are conducted onlineÂ –Â fromÂ managingÂ their finances to ordering the weekly shop.Â Many now expect any important communications to arrive in our inboxesÂ and on our phones
And many workers find that postal ballotsÂ exclude them from their unionâ€™s democratic processes.
As Sir Ken noted,Â some disabled people, such as those with sight or mobility restrictions,Â areÂ â€śsubstantially disadvantagedâ€ťÂ by postal balloting.
Young workers are more likely toÂ move home andÂ find their post is delivered to an old address.Â And many workers work away from home for longÂ periods.
Others can do itÂ
OnlineÂ democracyÂ hasÂ spreadÂ rapidly through other spheres of public life.Â Already organisations like the National Trust conduct electronic ballots, and itâ€™s how the Conservative Party selects its London mayoral candidates.
The coronavirus pandemic ledÂ to a surge in online democratic processes, such as the move to virtual company meetings.
And aÂ majorityÂ of the British public believes that unions should be able to conduct balloting electronically.
Yet currently, for most important votes,Â 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 allowingÂ a balloting method thatÂ requiresÂ less manual handling of paper, takes the pressure off the postalÂ systemÂ and doesnâ€™t require participants to leave their home.
The failure of legislation to keep up with modern behaviourÂ hasnâ€™tÂ stopped trade unions innovatingÂ in the digital sphere.
ManyÂ useÂ online voting toÂ seekÂ indicativeÂ member viewsÂ on issues such as pay offers or potentialÂ industrial action.
This isÂ particularlyÂ importantÂ in those sectorsÂ with far-flung members such as mariners and pilots.
Unions areÂ alsoÂ using electronic methods to encourage members to exercise their democratic rights.
And initiatives such as the TUCâ€™sÂ Digital LabÂ are helping unions explore how to recruit and mobilise members who are living lives increasingly detached from the formal workplace, such as byÂ home working.
Time for changeÂ
All of this makes a mockery of rules that only serve to hamper the ability of union members to engage with their unionâ€™s democratic process.
There is no substantive caseÂ whyÂ union membersÂ shouldnâ€™tÂ have access to the same modern balloting methods as other organisations.
Itâ€™sÂ time to bring union balloting into the 21st century.