I believe in trade unions but the Unite machine alienated me

I joined the union as a fresh-faced student idealist but the camaraderie which I expected never materialised.

As the fallout over Falkirk continues and Labour calls in the police to investigate its biggest financial backer, some sections of the media can barely contain their glee at Unite’s troubles. The reactions of ordinary union members have, as usual, been excluded from the discussion. They cannot be heard over the cacophony of middle class media pundits and Oxbridge observers who lack a grassroots understanding of the problem.

As a former Unite member, news of the alleged scandal was accompanied by a familiar sinking feeling. I left the union earlier this year under a burden of disappointment and anger.

I’d joined Unite at the start of 2012 as a fresh-faced student idealist, one of the first to join under their pioneering community membership scheme, which embraces students, the unemployed, the disabled and others outside the traditional workplace.

Before I hear you groan, I was not - and am not - a fair-weather student revolutionary. I was raised in a working class, trade unionist family. My father was a night sorter for the Royal Mail. As a child I watched my parents struggle under the financial burden of regular strikes, ensuring that my brother and I had dinner while they discreetly went without.

We were brought up to believe in the justness of trade unions and the necessity of sacrificing short-term income for a greater collective good. When my brother was diagnosed with autism and his care requirements became clear, it was our father’s union which helped him negotiate family-friendly hours. It was in this context that I joined Unite, with a childlike belief that unions could do no wrong. I was quickly disabused of this idea.

Soon after joining I began to involve myself in Unite’s activities. I attended a training weekend and later stood for election on a committee of young members. I planned to attend a conference and, in the time-honoured tradition of democracy, give a speech about my suitability for the role. When illness prevented me from attending at the last minute, I tried in vain to contact the appropriate union official to pass on a speech to be read in my absence. When nobody replied in time, I was angry that I had been denied the right to stand for the committee position.

My anger turned to confusion when, weeks later, I received a letter congratulating me on winning my committee place and inviting me to the first meeting. How on earth, I wondered, did I win an election in which I was not present and had no speech? I now held some executive power over the youth policies of Unite’s London and Eastern branch, without attending a single Unite conference. A little discomfited, I didn’t attend the committee meetings. The invitations kept coming, and nobody contacted me regarding my absence. Looking back now, it seems extraordinary.

There were murmurings of unease among other young members I encountered. Even the most strident  muttered about the indifference they encountered from higher-ups regarding queries and problems. Such criticisms tended to be couched in the more gentle language of "communication difficulties" and the need to "update infrastructure", but their meaning was clear. These observations would be briefly acknowledged and quickly glossed over without progress being made. Unity was our watchword and we were all comrades in the good fight, but there was an unspoken understanding that being too direct about the union's problems would make you appear disloyal. Members quietly assumed that individual thoughts and opinions should automatically play second fiddle to a wider purpose. To criticise was to mark you out as an individual in an organisation deeply focused on the collective. Everyone, myself included, yearned for a place within this good and noble collective. To be an individual was, fundamentally, to be selfish.

There were other moments of unease. One training day took an awkward turn when a young member dared ask why we were given an equalities monitoring form where everyone was lumped into either "white" or "BME" (Black and Minority Ethnic). The workshop leader simply ignored her and changed the topic. The girl who’d rasied the question was visibly disgusted.

Greater disappointment was to follow. When Unite advertised an admin apprenticeship within their offices, I was keen to apply. Unfortunately the link to the application form was broken, so I notified the union. I did receive a reply, assuring me it was being looked into. As the days ticked by and the application deadline loomed, I emailed again and again urging them for answers before time ran out.

There was no further reply, and the deadline passed me by. My point of contact never got in touch to explain her silence or apologise for the missed opportunity. I began to regard Unite as a vast and ponderous machine, rumbling on, regardless of its members’ needs, in aid of some more obscure purpose. The camaraderie with which I expected my union to enfold me never materialised. With deep sadness, I cancelled my membership.

After witnessing firsthand Unite’s relaxed attitude to democracy, the accusation that it manipulated the selection contest in Falkirk is sadly not a surprise. I hope for the sake of the trade union movement that Unite is innocent of the accusation. Trade unions still have a crucial place in the modern world in helping people fight back against unscrupulous employers, low wages and poor conditions. If you believe that all employers will simply be saintly without checks and balances, then you are a far bigger idealist than me.

All the same, it isn’t hard to understand why unions might feel compelled to opt for underhand methods. Look at their relationship with the media: there isn’t one. In a recent conversation with a friend who had worked for a national broadsheet, she complained that in her experience, unions had failed to reach out to journalists and put their side across. They were aloof and surly towards outsiders.

As a result, a generation has grown up with a mainstream press that promotes ambivalence or hostility towards unions. Myths have sprung up: unions are bad for business, they are troublemakers and, that old chestnut, they promote "health and safety gone mad". We live in a country where many have never encountered a pro-union opinion in their lives and think of unions as a sinister cabal.

The truth is that they have failed to do the legwork to secure support the proper way - by building relationships with the media and communicating with the ordinary people they claim to represent. It’s no wonder that people are mistrustful.

In perhaps the greatest irony of all, Unite continue to send me ballot papers for their referenda and leadership elections. It is a good thing, then, that I throw these away and do not choose to exercise the undue influence of which they stand accused.

Demonstrators take part in a TUC march in protest against the government's spending cuts on October 20, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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As a Conservative MP, I want Parliament to get a proper debate on Brexit

The government should consider a Green Paper before Article 50. 

I am very pleased that the government has listened to the weight of opinion across the House of Commons – and the country – by agreeing to put its plan for Brexit before Parliament and the country for scrutiny before Article 50 is triggered. Such responsiveness will stand the government in good stead. A confrontation with Parliament, especially given the paeans to parliamentary sovereignty we heard from Leave campaigners during the referendum, would have done neither the Brexit process nor British democracy any good.

I support the government’s amendment to Labour’s motion, which commits the House to respecting the will of the British people expressed in the referendum campaign. I accept that result, and now I and other Conservatives who campaigned to Remain are focused on getting the best deal for Britain; a deal which respects the result of the referendum, while keeping Britain close to Europe and within the single market.

The government needs to bring a substantive plan before Parliament, which allows for a proper public and parliamentary debate. For this to happen, the plan provided must be detailed enough for MPs to have a view on its contents, and it must arrive in the House far enough in advance of Article 50 for us to have a proper debate. As five pro-European groups said yesterday, a Green Paper two months before Article 50 is invoked would be a sensible way of doing it. Or, in the words of David Davis just a few days before he was appointed to the Cabinet, a “pre-negotiation white paper” could be used to similar effect.

Clearly there are divisions, both between parties and between Leavers and Remainers, on what the Brexit deal should look like. But I, like other members of the Open Britain campaign and other pro-European Conservatives, have a number of priorities which I believe the government must prioritise in its negotiations.

On the economy, it is vital that the government strives to keep our country fully participating in the single market. Millions of jobs depend on the unfettered trade, free of both tariff and non-tariff barriers, we enjoy with the world’s biggest market. This is absolutely compatible with the result, as senior Leave campaigners such as Daniel Hannan assured voters before the referendum that Brexit would not threaten Britain’s place in the single market. The government must also undertake serious analysis on the consequences of leaving the customs union, and the worrying possibility that the UK could fall out of our participation in the EU’s Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with non-EU countries like South Korea.

If agreeing a new trading relationship with Europe in just two years appears unachievable, the government must look closely into the possibility of agreeing a transitional arrangement first. Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, has said this would be possible and the Prime Minister was positive about this idea at the recent CBI Conference. A suitable transitional arrangement would prevent the biggest threat to British business – that of a "cliff edge" that would slap costly tariffs and customs checks on British exports the day after we leave.

Our future close relationship with the EU of course goes beyond economics. We need unprecedentedly close co-operation between the UK and the EU on security and intelligence sharing; openness to talented people from Europe and the world; and continued cooperation on issues like the environment. This must all go hand-in-hand with delivering reforms to immigration that will make the system fairer, many of which can be seen in European countries as diverse as the Netherlands and Switzerland.

This is what I and others will be arguing for in the House of Commons, from now until the day Britain leaves the European Union. A Brexit deal that delivers the result of the referendum while keeping our country prosperous, secure, open and tolerant. I congratulate the government on their decision to involve the House in their plan for Brexit - and look forward to seeing the details. 

Neil Carmichael is the Conservative MP for Stroud and supporter of the Open Britain campaign.