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Free Tory membership for trade unionists is a great idea - but will Cameron buy it?

David Skelton's proposal shows how the Tories could begin to expand their appeal but the PM seems happiest playing the old tunes.

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

While David Cameron and many other Tory ministers often give the impression of never being happier than when at war with the trade unions, David Skelton, the director of Renewal, the new group seeking to broaden the Conservatives' appeal, advocates a more thoughtful approach. 

To coincide with the TUC conference, Skelton has called for the Tories to include a commitment in their manifesto to offer free party membership to all trade unionists. He rightly notes that there almost 7 million union members in the UK (a number which increased by 59,000 last year) and that they hold the balance of power in many of the midlands and northern marginals that the Conservatives need to win to stand any chance of achieving a majority. It's a perspective that contrasts notably with that of many other Tories. In a post on ConservativeHome earlier this year, Harry Phibbs listed a fall in union membership in 2011 as a "coalition achievement".

Skelton said:

There won’t be any Conservative Ministers speaking at the TUC Congress this week and, in the eyes of many, Conservatives and the trade union movement remain poles apart. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Conservatives should look to the example of Margaret Thatcher, who made 'Conservative Trade Unionists' a thriving organisation, with around 250 branches. There’s no reason why such an organisation, with national and regional spokespeople shouldn’t exist today. Likewise it makes sense to offer all trade unionists free membership of the Conservative Party. I can’t see Len McCluskey or Bob Crow signing up. But the fact that union leaders are often out of touch with their members provides an opportunity for Conservatives to appeal to union members over the heads of their leaders.

Conservatives should be careful not to put off instinctively conservative union members through over-zealous anti-union rhetoric. Treating all trade unionists as some kind of ‘red under the bed’ threat is neither credible nor likely to make union members more willing to listen to the Conservative message.

It's an argument that Conservative MP Robert Halfon has previously made on The Staggers ("Why the Tories should embrace the trade unions"), warning that when the Tories criticise unions, "the effect is not just to demonise militancy, but every trade union member, including doctors, nurses and teachers." He praised unions as "essential components of the Big Society", noting that "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."

There was a time when Cameron shared this ambition to win over the unions. He became the first Conservative leader in more than a decade to meet the then TUC general secretary Brendan Barber and even appointed a union emissary, the former Labour MEP Richard Balfe, to spearhead secret negotiations. But more recently, he crudely attacked unions as a "threat to the economy", a remark reminiscent of Thatcher's notorious branding of the miners as "the enemy within". 

The 2005-era Cameron would surely have seized on the idea of free party membership for trade unionists as soon as it was proposed. But even after failing to win a majority in 2010, he seems ever happier to play the old tunes. If the Tories are to expand, rather than merely preserve, their support, that will need to change soon.