Before a strike can be lawful, unions have to hold a secret postal ballot of the union members who could take part.
Earlier this year, the government offered civil servants a pay increase of 1%. The main civil service union countered with a demand for a 5% pay rise. The government rejected this and the union balloted over 140,000 of its members for strike action.
This week the ballot closed. There were almost 60,000 votes cast, with over 85% in favour of strike action.
Under the old law, which only required a majority of the votes cast to be in favour, this would have given the union a legal mandate for industrial action.
However, for industrial action ballots from 1 March 2017, a turnout of 50% of those entitled to vote is now also required. The turnout in this ballot was under 42% so any strike would be unlawful.
This outcome, despite the largest percentage vote for industrial action and highest turnout in the union’s history, shows the challenges unions now face.
Unions can now be expected to step up their campaign for a change in the law to permit electronic balloting, on which the TUC accuses the government of dragging its feet.
While this is not a priority for the present UK government, the present instability within the government means that a general election later this year is a realistic possibility. It is clear that a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government would repeal the laws on strike ballot thresholds and would almost certainly introduce electronic balloting.