Think of the relationship between the Conservatives and the trade unions. What probably comes to mind is Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher, police crushing the miners’ strike, and more recently, public sector strikes about pension cuts, and the Conservative’s snide remarks about the “union paymasters” who got Ed Miliband elected as leader of the Labour Party.
It is not a positive picture: the relationship, such as one exists, is founded on mutual animosity. But it doesn’t have to be this way — or so says Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow. In a pamphlet for Demos, Stop the Union Bashing: why the Conservatives should embrace the trade union movement, Halfon argues that the two could become “soulmates”.
In a move likely to be seen as highly provocative by trade union leaders, Halfon points out that it was a Conservative prime minister, the Earl of Derby, who legalised the trade union movement, and insists that Thatcher supported “moderate” unions.
He points out several areas of common ground, saying that the unions are inherently capitalist organisations, and many offer private health insurance. He says that they are a crucial component of civil society and exemplify the “little platoons” central to David Cameron’s “big society”.
Claiming that a third of union members vote Conservative, Halfon says that union leaders do not speak for this substantial majority. He writes in the Telegraph:
To be clear, I do not expect Bob Crow and other union barons to become Conservative voters. My point is that these leaders do not always speak well for their members (partly because they hold positions of essentially unchecked power). The Conservatives should try to speak over their heads, directly to the union members. When we bash the trade unions, the effect is not just to demonise militancy, but every trade union member, including doctors, nurses and teachers.
This intervention follows several anti-union actions by Conservatives. In January, backbencher Jesse Norman attempted to introduce a Bill to parliament which would have stopped full time trade union officials from getting taxpayer support. It was defeated by Labour. The Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, also told a meeting of backbenchers last month that ministers would find a way of stopping union officials getting taxpayer money, saying that the situation was like “the last page from Animal Farm“.
Against this backdrop, Halfon’s intervention will be viewed with suspicion: an attempt to undermine union bosses, who he descibes as “militants” rather than to genuinely build bridges. His approach is certainly different to Norman’s: Halfon stresses the electoral opportunity for the Tories, given that unions have more members than all the political parties combined. But it is difficult to see his suggestion of Conservatives staging appearances at union events going down very well. Quite apart from public sector pay freezes, pension cuts, and historical animosity, the government is steadily chipping away at workers’ rights and unemployment is sky-rocketing. Whatever the theoretical concordance between unions and the Tories that Halfon identifies, it is unlikely we will see the unions switching their allegiances en masse anytime soon.