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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.