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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.