Mark Steel: Watch out! Democracy is dangerous

Perhaps strike votes should be disallowed if the number in favour is a prime number

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We mustn't panic, but according to a front page headline in the Daily Mail we're being "HELD TO RANSOM BY 1,000 TANKER DRIVERS". What bad luck, that 1,000 tanker drivers have become Somali pirates. I suppose they had to re-train because of redundancies in the piracy trade due to new technology, such as email ransom notes and digital planks. But they've perfected a new method of ransom, which is holding a strike ballot and counting the votes.

A spokesman for Hoyer, one of the haulage firms affected, said, "This action is driven by a small number of disaffected drivers." And I suppose 1,000 is a smallish number, compared with the size of the universe, but the problem is that it's a bigger number than the number who voted against the strike.

So maybe the rules of voting should be changed. Instead of using outdated methods such as majorities, we should let haulage firm managers decide whether the number who voted is small or not. Perhaps strike votes should be disallowed if the number in favour is a prime number, or can be divided by seven. At least the law should be changed to disqualify votes of the disaffected, who aren't in a stable frame of mind for important decisions.

The Daily Mail itself complained that "the union only achieved its majority because 12 per cent of members failed to vote". In other words, the strike vote was only won because not enough people voted against it. So the union has found yet another way to fiddle the result.

To emphasise how serious this strike would be, the Minister for Energy said yesterday, "This dispute threatens our economic recovery." So the economists have all been wrong. They go on and on about debt and trade and all that, but what determines economic recovery is whether there's an oil tanker drivers' strike ballot. That must be what caused the world recession in the first place. And to think we've been blaming those poor bankers all along.

Asked "What is this dispute about?", the Minister replied, "This strike should not take place." He gave the same answer a second time, which suggests he didn't know the answer, and the interviewer could have said, "The drivers are being told they have to be waterboarded every time they turn left. That does seem a little unfair." And the Minister would have said, "This dispute threatens our recovery. It should not take place. If you would like me to condemn another strike vote press 1, followed by the hash key."

If you hunt through the condemnations, you eventually discover that tanker drivers are now passed between contractors, which can result in a sudden pay cut of £9,000 and a loss of their pension, which may, if you were a psychiatrist, suggest a reason why they're disaffected. But instead of holding us to ransom, why can't they be civilised, and have a whip-round so they can discuss the matter personally with the Prime Minister?

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