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.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.