Online voting: One rule for political parties, another rule for trade unions?

By Areeq Chowdhury.

There seems to be an inconsistency in the Government’s stance relating to the use of online voting in trade union strike ballots.

The Government has, so far, rejected calls by trade union leaders to allow members to vote online in strike ballots despite them being ‘open’ to online voting for future elections and despite every major UK political party using online voting for internal elections.

The Conservatives, Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems, and the Greens have all implemented online voting for internal party elections in recent years.

Just weeks prior to the Prime Minister’s rejection in the House of Commons of online voting for trade unions, Conservative Party members in London had voted online to elect Zac Goldsmith as their 2016 London Mayoral candidate.

Not too long before that, the largest online voting election in UK history took place when almost 350,000 people (81% of the total turnout) voted online in Labour’s leadership election.

In Scotland last year, members of the SNP went online to vote in the Deputy Leadership election following Nicola Sturgeon’s promotion to leader.

In London, members of the Liberal Democrats and Greens, like the Conservatives and Labour, used online voting to select their candidates for next year’s London Mayoral Elections.

Incidentally, the two leading candidates in the London Mayoral race, Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith have both backed the campaign for an online voting option in future elections.

Despite this, when questioned during PMQs by Labour MP, Liz McInnes, the Prime Minister argued against allowing trade union members to vote online and proceeded to cite research by the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy to support his position.

I found this to be an odd citation considering the headline recommendation of the Speaker’s Commission was for an online voting option to be implemented in the next General Election.

This mirrors a recommendation made by the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in research they undertook on voter engagement.

The comments, however, were also a break from the Prime Minister’s comments in the run up to the last election.

When questioned on live TV by young people as part of Sky News’ election coverage, the Prime Minister said he had ‘no objection’ to online voting.

But it’s not just members of UK political parties that vote online. The chief executive of the second largest stock exchange in the world, NASDAQ, recently announced that they will be testing blockchain technology to simplify the proxy voting system for shareholders. In 2014, across the Atlantic, voting via online platforms accounted for over 95% of shareholder votes.

Globally, in countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Estonia, and New Zealand, governments have implemented online voting in political elections.

In the USA, despite huge cyber-security pressures, President Obama has described online voting as ‘absolutely’ a priority for technology companies, and suggested it would help ‘enhance the experience of democracy.’

Here in the UK, there appears to be strong public support for modernising balloting procedures.

A WebRoots Democracy/YouGov poll this year found that 56% of the British public want online voting implemented for the upcoming EU referendum.

So why aren’t trade unions allowed to take advantage of technology to enable more of their members to participate in the decision-making process?

The Business Secretary, Sajid Javid argues that at the ‘heart’ of the Trade Union Bill ‘it is all about democracy and accountability.’

The suggestion set out in the bill is for minimum turnout thresholds of 50% to be met in ballots before strike action can be taken. However, research last year by Unite found that if this was applied to the Coalition Cabinet, not a single Conservative member would have met the threshold of 50% in their constituencies.

The average turnout mustered in London Mayor elections is just 39% and the turnout in the European Parliament elections last year was just a third.

I agree that greater democracy is a good thing, not just for unions, but in general. However, I fail to see how introducing a minimum threshold whilst enforcing 20th century postal balloting methods in a 21st century society is going to bring about that ideal.

Postal communications has been on a rapid decline in the past ten years, and more and more people have embraced the internet.

Figures released by the ONS this year revealed that internet usage in the UK has doubled in the past decade with almost 40 million adults logging on every single day.

It is a matter of fairness and progress – if politics and business can benefit from technology and vote online, shouldn’t unions be able to?

Areeq Chowdhury is the Founder of WebRoots Democracy.

Do you think the UK should introduce an online voting option for elections?  Take a moment to sign and share our e-petition.

This was originally published on the Huffington Post website here.

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