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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.