Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow. Follow Rob on Twitter
It’s time that Conservatives stopped bashing trade unions and start remembering our roots. That is the central argument of my DEMOS pamphlet that was released yesterday: Stop the Union Bashing. The battles with Arthur Scargill in the 1980s cloud many people’s perception of our relationship to them. But we have a long history of caring for trade unionists. I suspect you don’t believe me. Let me ask you this: who first set out to legalise the trade union movement? A Conservative, indeed a prime minister: the Earl of Derby. And who said that the law should not only permit, but “assist” the trades unions? It was Margaret Thatcher herself.
In fact, Mrs Thatcher was a committed trade unionist. The first political office she held was in the Conservative Trade Unionists. She understood very well something that many Conservatives now forget: there is a huge difference between the militants and the grassroots members. That is why, as Leader of the Opposition, she fought hard to recruit members from the Conservative Trade Unionists. It is hard to imagine now but in 1979 trade union members flew banners reading: “Trade Unions for a Conservative Victory” in Wembley Stadium.
Since then, relations between us have not been as strong, but that does not mean they do not exist. David Cameron recruited Richard Balfe, an ex-Labour MEP, as his envoy to the trade union in 2007. A wise move as Balfe boldly pointed out to his former comrades that “it may be worth noting that some 30 per cent of trade union members vote Tory.”
Recent controversy over pensions and public sector jobs does not make this an easy sell. But we cannot allow Denis MacShane MP to get away with tweeting that “Tories despise union folk.” It is simply not true – and the perception that it is could cost our party millions of votes. There are 6.5 million trade union members in the UK – more than the entire population of Scotland – and the majority of them are moderate, hardworking people.
We share many values with them. To start with, many union members are thoroughly capitalist. For instance, there are far more trade union members with private healthcare than go on strike. In fact, Unison recently encouraged its members to join the private healthcare scheme Medicash.
Trade unionists are also wonderful communitarians. Indeed, they are the largest voluntary group in the UK. TUC research has shown that trade union officers are eight times more likely to engage in voluntary work than the average person. They are the Big Society in action.
Indeed, many unionists actually vote Conservative. A Populus poll in 2009 showed that a third of Unite members intended to vote Conservative. We must remember that the majority of unions are politically neutral and do not supply funds to any political party. Of the 58 unions in the TUC, just 15 are Labour-affiliated. That leaves 43 non-affiliated unions in Britain, plus many hundreds of smaller groups.
Just 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). That is why Conservatives should try to speak over their heads, directly to the union members.
We need to change our language. In politics, language is everything. When Conservatives bash the trade unions, the effect is not just to demonise militancy, but every trade union member, and numerous public sector workers too. That includes all doctors, nurses, and teachers.
I am not naive about militant unionism. I know they give the Labour Party 90 per cent of its funding — I would like to see this changed — but I don’t believe that precludes me from union membership myself or believing that they are the little platoons we love to talk about.
Conservatives need to re-engage: they should not be afraid to praise the union movement or even encourage people to join unions. In fact, I think we should make joining the Conservative Party a little more like joining a union, charging 50p a month for them to join, for example. We need to show them we share similar values, and we value them. I want Conservatives to campaign in the union movement again, standing for election as officials, just like they did under Thatcher. This way we could oppose subsidies, funds to the Labour party and tougher strike laws, but do it standing shoulder-to-shoulder with millions of union members that agree.