David Skelton is the Director of Renewal, a campaign organisation aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party. Follow David on Twitter.
are almost seven million trade union members in the UK. In many of the marginal
seats that Conservatives have to win to gain an overall majority in 2015, trade
union members could hold the balance of power. The Party is right to disagree
with the ideologically driven wreckers who lead the major unions, but that
shouldn’t stop them reaching out to ordinary trade union members, many of whom
are sympathetic to conservatism.
unions are, after all, fairly conservative institutions. They’re voluntary
institutions, which aren’t part of the big state, and they’re based on
conservative ideas like mutual assistance and community. There’s also a lot of
evidence that many trade unionists are very receptive to conservative ideas. Recent
polling by Lord Ashcroft showed that Unite members overwhelmingly back policies
like the benefit cap and right to buy, both of which are opposed by their
union’s leadership. Only 12 per cent of Unite members say that they would join
the Labour Party if they were no longer made affiliate members.
are right to take on trade union leaders, like Len McCluskey, who are getting
in the way of much needed reforms. But they should be careful not to make it
appear that they’re hostile to trade unions and trade unionists in general. As
Lord Ashcroft’s polling suggests, firebrand union leaders are almost entirely
unrepresentative of their members.
politicians should appeal to union members over the heads of the out of touch
union leaders gathering at the TUC Congress this week. And they should learn
from Margaret Thatcher when they’re trying to appeal to trade unionists. In
1950, Mrs Thatcher was elected President of the Dartford branch of Conservative
Trade Unionists and, after being elected as party leader in 1975, she vastly
expanded the organisation, to the extent that Conservative Trade Unionists had
around 250 branches and held a major rally at Wembley before the 1979 election.
this courting of trade unionists was clearly successful, given that Mrs
Thatcher gained more votes from trade unionists than Jim Callaghan in the 1979
election. She said that Conservatives should stand for the “majority [of the
union movement] which is both reasonable and moderate.” Today’s party should
take heed of those wise words, and seek to build up Conservative Trade Unionists
as a serious organisation again, with spokespeople around the country. They
would also be wise to listen to Robert Halfon, who argues that the Party should
offer free or discounted membership to trade unionists. This could give the
Party a real organisational boost in parts of the country where such a boost is
Tories should also do more to empower trade union members to decide how their
political levy is used. Union members should be able to donate their levy to
the Conservative Party if they wish. This takes the power out of the hands of
out of touch union leaders and gives it to ordinary members. It would also give
Conservatives a real incentive to appeal to rank and file union members.
need to appeal directly to trade union members, who have no sympathy with the
left wing rhetoric of their leaders. This would help the Party form a winning
coalition of voters for the next election and beyond – and show that it is now
the Conservatives who are the real workers’ party.