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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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.