Dr Spencer Pitfield OBE is Director of Conservative Workers & Trade Unionists (CWTU).
In 2012, Robert Halfon, Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships, wrote what I am sure will be seen historically as a seminal pamphlet for the think tank, Demos. Stop the Union-Bashing dealt directly and uncompromisingly with fundamental aspects of the Conservative Party’s past and more recent relationships with trade unions, their leaders, and their memberships.
Halfon’s piece was particularly intuitive for the time, as it made a no-holds-barred Conservative ‘pitch’ for the centre ground of British politics. This was a pitch which, at its very core, understood that we Conservatives need not only to build a country that works for everyone, but also recognised that this great country is, for the most part, built on the endeavours of ordinary hard-working Britons.
In the years since that article, this type of ‘blue-collar’ conservatism has often been referred to as ‘white-van-man’ conservatism. I have never liked political slogans or acronyms: in my opinion, they debase the serious discussion at large. But, if white-van-man conservatism translates into a party that fully understands that it is the majority whom we should endeavour to support, and that this majority is made up of hard-working people struggling to make ends meet, then so be it.
In the United Kingdom today, we have some 6.5 million trade-union members – more than the entire population of Scotland. The vast majority of them are moderate, hard-working, community-focused people. These many millions of union members – of which I am one – want nothing to do with the militant and clearly politicised actions of some union barons. We would always choose to adopt a ‘moderate’ trade unionism, which places the needs of all people at the very heart of any dispute situation. That means the needs of union members, together with the needs of those people the union serves, whether they be private or public sector in origin.
This moderate trade unionism holds strike action as an action of the very last resort. Given the militant action being taken by some unions, there is the great danger that today, as Conservatives, we will begin once again to tar all trade-union leaders – and by direct association, their members – with the same brush. We must not.
In situations where union barons are clearly hell-bent on causing the most disruptive politicised impact on the Government, we must look above their heads. We must look beyond these corrupted leaders, and speak directly to their unions’ members. You only have to look at the numbers who actually vote for strike action to realise this is important.
Trade unions and trade unionism are fundamentally good things, which we Conservatives support wholeheartedly. However, the politicised and punitive actions of some union barons are fundamentally bad things, which bring their actions and those of their unions into grave disrepute. Such actions should be held in the contempt they quite rightly deserve.
The days are long gone when a professional and modern union leadership representation could do a good job for its members, whilst funding and influencing a political party. Good unions and their leaders are not affiliated to any political party. Those leaders work hard to represent their members, and are never conflicted by divided loyalties – not least divided loyalties to political parties. They speak their mind, but do so for their membership, not for any party.
No one could ever say that Mike Clancy – the General Secretary of Prospect Union – has ever held back on his views when he felt the Government was going in the wrong direction. But when Clancy speaks, he speaks for his members, and not political paymasters. Union members are best served when the views of their leaders are put forward free from being seen through a political prism.
This is, perhaps, the ‘battle’ with the unions we should be having today.