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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage