This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics
With fuel strikes in the headlines again, it is more important than ever to remember that there is a huge difference between moderate union members, and some hardline union leaders, who Conservatives are bound to have disagreements with. In fact, I would take it a step further: it’s time we Conservatives stopped bashing trade unions and started remembering our roots.
This is because sometimes when we criticise unions, the effect is not just to demonise militancy, but every trade union member, including doctors, nurses and teachers. There is a world of difference between the policies of Len McCluskey, and the ordinary activities of the Unite trade union. In reality, Unite is a very capitalist organisation. On their website they advertise tax-minimising services through a business called ‘Tax Refund Co’, with the strapline: “Over £6.3m already refunded to Unite members – see if you’re due a refund.” They also advertise private health insurance deals through Eyecare Express, Macmillan Cancer Support, and Unite Family insurance. There is even a ‘Unite Lottery’, a gambling game raising funds for the union.
It’s not just Unite. Many other unions offer identical services on their website. Unison, for example, also has private health schemes and tax-avoiding services. And yet both are formally affiliated with the Labour Party, and are Ed Miliband’s main source of funds. This serves as a reminder that there are far more trade unionists with private healthcare than who go on strike. The Daily Telegraph reported in 2001 that 3.5 million trade unionists – more than half the TUC membership – now have some form of private health cover. By contrast, the TUC estimate that less than two million went on strike in 2011 over pensions reform. I joined the Prospect trade union, not because I agree with all of their political views, but because I know that if I got into a spot of bother, the union would be one of the first places to turn – especially if I needed legal advice or work support.
The truth is that while the Conservative Party has a long history of caring for trade unionists, the battles with Arthur Scargill in the 1980s and the miners’ strikes have clouded many people’s perceptions. I suspect you don’t believe me, but let me ask you this: who first set out to legalise the trade union movement? A Conservative, indeed a Conservative prime minister: the Earl of Derby. And who said that the law should not only permit, but also “assist” the trade unions? It was Margaret Thatcher.
In fact, Mrs Thatcher was a committed trade unionist. The first political office she held was in the Conservative Trade Unionists (CTU). Perhaps because of this she understood very well something that many Tories now forget: that most trade union members are not political. They are commuters, workers, people going about their daily lives. That is why, as leader of the opposition, she fought hard to recruit members for the CTU. It is hard to imagine now, but in 1979, trade union members flew banners in Wembley Stadium that read: “Trade Unions for a Conservative Victory.”
Recent controversy does not make this relationship an easy sell, but we cannot allow nay-sayers like the Labour MP Denis MacShane to get away with tweeting that “Tories despise union folk”. It is simply not true. There are 6.5 million trade union members in the UK – that’s more than the entire population of Scotland – and the majority of them are moderate, hard-working Britons. A Populus poll in 2009 showed that a third of Unite members actually intended to vote Conservative at the general election. Of the 58 unions in the TUC, only 15 are Labour-affiliated, leaving 43 non-affiliated unions in Britain.
Conservatives share many values with trade unionists. To start with, many union members are thoroughly capitalist – blue in tooth and claw, as I have set out – but they are also wonderful communitarians. Trade unions are the largest voluntary group in the UK. TUC research has shown that trade union officers actually are eight times more likely to engage in voluntary work than the average person. That is the big society in action.
To be clear, I do not expect Bob Crow and other union barons to become Conservative voters. My point is that these leaders do not always speak well for their members. That is why Tory campaigners and supporters should try to speak over their heads, directly to their memberships.
I am not naive about militant unionism. I know that this is the source of 90 per cent of the Labour Party’s funding, and I would like to see that changed. However, I don’t believe that precludes me from holding union membership myself, or from believing that the people who belong to these organisations form the little platoons we love to talk about. It’s no good Conservatives complaining that unions are dominated by the left, if we don’t participate in the union movement.
That is why Conservatives need to re-engage, and to reform. We should not be afraid to praise the union movement or even encourage people to join up. In fact, I think we could make joining the Conservative Party a little more like joining a union. We could charge 50p a month for membership, for example, and help people to negotiate deals like cheaper car insurance.
We need to show union members that we share similar values and that we appreciate them. I want Conservatives actively to campaign in the union movement again, standing for election as officials, just as they did under Margaret Thatcher. This way, we could oppose subsidies and funds to the Labour Party, and work for tougher strike laws, but do it standing shoulder-to-shoulder with millions of union members who agree with us.
Robert Halfon is the Conservative MP for Harlow and the author of Stop the Union-Bashing, published by Demos. He tweets at @halfon4harlowMP