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.

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. 

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.