Why the Tories should embrace the trade unions

Trade unions are essential components of the Big Society.

I was recently asked by a journalist on the radio: how does the government reaction to a possible fuel strike square with my Demos pamphlet, Stop The Union-Bashing? My reply was: I don’t see a contradiction in terms. There is a huge difference between millions of moderate union members, and some hardline union leaders, who Conservatives are bound to have disagreements with.

I have argued, however, that when we talk about trade unions, Conservatives need to change our language and our attitudes. 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 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 call “Tax Refund Co”, with the strapline: “Over £6.3 million 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, and 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. This serves as a reminder that there are far more trade unionists with private health care, 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 just 2 million went on strike in 2011 over pensions reform. I joined Prospect, 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.

It is worth noting, however, that not only are unions very much capitalist, they are essential components of the Big Society. They are the largest voluntary groups in the UK. They are rooted in local communities, and are very much social entrepreneurs. TUC research shows that trade union officers are eight times more likely to engage in voluntary work than the average.

Disputes over pensions and wages will never make this relationship an easy sell. But the essence of my argument is that we cannot allow 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 – more than the entire population of Scotland – and the majority of them are moderate, hard-working people. A Populus poll in 2009 showed that a third of Unite members intended to vote Conservative in the general election. The same was true of Unison. Of the 58 unions in the TUC, only 15 are Labour-affiliated, leaving 43 non-affiliated unions in Britain.

To be clear, I do not expect Bob Crow and other union barons to become Conservative voters. But given the extent of Conservative-minded thinking among union members, Conservatives should reach out to the membership, if not the leadership.

Contrary to popular mythology, Conservatives have not always been hostile to trade unions. Mrs Thatcher was herself an ardent trade unionist. Before New Statesman readers choke on their cornflakes, it is worth looking at the history. In 1951 one of the first political organisations she joined was the Conservative Trade Unionists (CTU). As Leader of the Opposition, she expanded CTU to more than 270 branches up and down the country, and even diverted Conservative Office funds to support the CTU with full-time staff. It is hard to imagine now, but in 1979, thousands of trade union members flew banners reading: “Trade Unions for a Conservative Victory” in Wembley Stadium before the general election. Her quarrel was with what she saw as militants, not the trade union movement as a whole. Most people associate the beginning of the union movement with the Labour Party, but it was actually a Conservative Prime Minister (the Earl of Derby) who set in train the laws to establish trade unions, in 1867.

Conservatives should not be afraid to praise the union movement or even encourage people to join up. In fact, I think we should go so far as to offer free membership to any Conservative-minded trade unionist. We need to show union members that we share similar values: not only for their capitalism, but for their communitarianism as well. A newly invigorated Conservative trade unionist movement should encourage Conservatives to campaign in trade unions again, standing for election as officials, just as they did under Margaret Thatcher. It’s no good Conservatives complaining that unions are dominated by the Left, if we don’t participate in the union movement.

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow and the author of Stop the Union-Bashing, published by the think-tank Demos. He tweets at @halfon4harlowMP

Workers at Unilever's Port Sunlight factory picket outside the main gates of the factory on the Wirral, Merseyside. Photograph: Getty Images.

Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow. He tweets at @halfon4harlowMP

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.