Tories and trade unions could be "soulmates", says Tory MP

Robert Halfon argues that the two could be natural bedfellows -- but it is difficult to see the unio

Think of the relationship between the Conservatives and the trade unions. What probably comes to mind is Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher, police crushing the miners' strike, and more recently, public sector strikes about pension cuts, and the Conservative's snide remarks about the "union paymasters" who got Ed Miliband elected as leader of the Labour Party.

It is not a positive picture: the relationship, such as one exists, is founded on mutual animosity. But it doesn't have to be this way -- or so says Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow. In a pamphlet for Demos, Stop the Union Bashing: why the Conservatives should embrace the trade union movement, Halfon argues that the two could become "soulmates".

In a move likely to be seen as highly provocative by trade union leaders, Halfon points out that it was a Conservative prime minister, the Earl of Derby, who legalised the trade union movement, and insists that Thatcher supported "moderate" unions.

He points out several areas of common ground, saying that the unions are inherently capitalist organisations, and many offer private health insurance. He says that they are a crucial component of civil society and exemplify the "little platoons" central to David Cameron's "big society".

Claiming that a third of union members vote Conservative, Halfon says that union leaders do not speak for this substantial majority. He writes in the Telegraph:

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 (partly because they hold positions of essentially unchecked power). The Conservatives should try to speak over their heads, directly to the union members. When we bash the trade unions, the effect is not just to demonise militancy, but every trade union member, including doctors, nurses and teachers.

This intervention follows several anti-union actions by Conservatives. In January, backbencher Jesse Norman attempted to introduce a Bill to parliament which would have stopped full time trade union officials from getting taxpayer support. It was defeated by Labour. The Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, also told a meeting of backbenchers last month that ministers would find a way of stopping union officials getting taxpayer money, saying that the situation was like "the last page from Animal Farm".

Against this backdrop, Halfon's intervention will be viewed with suspicion: an attempt to undermine union bosses, who he descibes as "militants" rather than to genuinely build bridges. His approach is certainly different to Norman's: Halfon stresses the electoral opportunity for the Tories, given that unions have more members than all the political parties combined. But it is difficult to see his suggestion of Conservatives staging appearances at union events going down very well. Quite apart from public sector pay freezes, pension cuts, and historical animosity, the government is steadily chipping away at workers' rights and unemployment is sky-rocketing. Whatever the theoretical concordance between unions and the Tories that Halfon identifies, it is unlikely we will see the unions switching their allegiances en masse anytime soon.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle