Liberal Hero of the Week #72: Vince Cable

by Stephen Tall on July 12, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

cf hero vince cable

Vince Cable

Lib Dem Business Secretary
Reason: For sticking up for the right of workers to go on strike.

There are many reasons over the couple of years the Liberal Heroes series has been running that Vince Cable could have been nominated – most notably, his battle against Conservative cabinet colleagues’ panicky attempts to cut immigration even at the cost of damaging the British economy.

But he gets the nod this week for a completely different issue, though one on which (coincidentally, I’m sure) he’s also at odds with the Conservative party: defending the right of workers to go on strike.

On Thursday this week, between half-a-million (Government estimate) and more than a million (trade union estimate) public sector workers went on strike in protest against the Coalition’s policies on pay, pensions and spending cuts. This triggered calls by David Cameron to make it harder for the unions to call strikes, perhaps by imposing a minimum turnout threshold in any strike ballot. Vince, rightly, was having none of it:

“We disagree with the Tories’ assertion that a small turnout in strike-action ballots undermines the basic legitimacy of the strike. If they want to look at minimum turnout, this would have major implications for other democratic turnouts and elections. Many MPs have been elected by well under 50% of their electorate, let alone police commissioners or MEPs. Why have a threshold in a ballot but not make our elected politicians or shareholders face the same hurdle?”

He’s quite right. And as Steven Toft (AKA blogger ‘Flip Chart Rick’) pointed out:

There is one other way in which parliamentary, mayoral and council elections are different from strike ballots, though, and it’s a much more important one than the argument about majorities.

Political elections are binding on everyone. Unless you decide to emigrate, you have to abide by the laws the new government makes, regardless of how small its percentage of the vote was.

Strike ballots, on the other hand, are binding on absolutely nobody. If your union votes to strike, you are perfectly free to ignore it, as lots of public sector workers did on Thursday. There is nothing the union or anyone else can do about it. Unions are prevented by law from disciplining members who refuse to go on strike. Yes, there may be some peer pressure but if that extends to intimidation, the perpetrators could find themselves facing criminal charges.

All a strike ballot does is make it legal for those that want to go on strike to do so. That’s all. Everyone else can ignore it.

Putting the threshold up to 50 percent would mean that all abstentions would be counted as no votes. An apathetic majority could therefore stop a committed minority from exercising their right to strike.

Liberals believe in freedom. The free movement of people, freedom of association, and the freedom of workers to withdraw their labour. For sticking up for those freedoms of the individual against the state, Vince Cable is this week’s Liberal Hero.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

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