Dr Spencer Pitfield OBE is Director of Conservative Workers & Trade Unionists (CWTU).
The recent Conservative Party Conference was notable for many important reasons.
For me, though, it was a conference of the most dramatic significance as there can now be no doubt that the road to debunking Conservative Trade Union myths has well and truly started.
I begin this piece with two transparently clear and what I hope you will believe unequivocally correct statements.
Firstly, that trade unions are and always will be fundamentally good things for our society. And secondly, that as Conservatives we need to spend much less time complaining about sporadic pockets of industrial action – and much more time focusing on the day-in-day-out unheralded good work most TUC-affiliated unions do.
At our packed inaugural Conservative Workers & Trade Unionists (CWTU) fringe event – hosted jointly with ResPublica and the Regent Education Group – the impressive General Secretary of the Prospect Union Mike Clancy spoke with considerable vision and passion about his desire for both unions and government to work together to deliver economic prosperity for all – and made the case that there was no inherent conflict between the pursuit of growth and the protection of jobs and workers’ rights.
In the context of this article it is important to note Clancy’s comments for the record: “Drawing on the diverse workplace experience of unions like Prospect, an opportunity exists to improve productivity, drive economic growth and enhance skills. It might not chime with common perceptions but most unions…are independent of any political party and purely focus on promoting the interests of their members”.
He continued: “It is particularly important to have constructive dialogue with the Government of the day. It may be stating the obvious but the Conservatives are the ones driving the agenda at the moment and we want to be able to influence that positively. But this Government faces a choice. What sort of workplaces does it want its policies to produce and what say will they give working people and their unions?”
Finally Clancy concluded: “When doing their job well, unions should be providing a positive challenge to Government: holding it to its key pledges on the economy and the public it serves. Whatever our differing political persuasions, we all want to see the economy and working people thrive”.
No Conservative reading Mike Clancy’s comments above could honestly disagree with them. Part therefore of debunking our Conservative trade union myths is to know that moderate and forward-looking trade unions aspire to the very same things that we Conservatives aspire to.
As Conservatives we need to reach out and listen more carefully to what our trade union colleagues are saying – whilst also not being ideologically fearful of the language they sometimes choose to speak in. For example, is collective bargaining really something that in 2016 we should be fearful of? I think not. We should embrace the ability for all hard working people to speak with a unified and common united voice.
Our Honorary CWTU President, Rob Halfon, said only recently that “we are the Party of the NHS, not BHS”. He is right; we must be there for all hard-working people, and never again allow ourselves to be perceived to be a party that only works hard for the privileged few. A country that works for everyone.
Our Prime Minister has a vision which not only protects workers’ rights but also aims to enhance them – yes, where necessary doing so through legislation. A free market cannot, and does not, always deliver the necessary protections our society would want for working people. Sometimes the state can and must intervene.
Finally, apart from debunking trade union myths we must communicate better and more directly with trade unions. As Clancy said, we do not always need to agree but as a positive and most necessary starting point (dare I say, at the very least) we do need to hear what trade unions are saying. We should consider carefully and fairly their views, and where we are able we should deliver and drive forward common policies which bring trade unions and government closer together – not further apart.