Ruth Davidson is the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. She is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow.
We’ve all seen that picture of Michael Gove on the picket line. As a junior reporter, he manned the NUJ barricades – all oversized specs, tousled hair, corduroy trousers and bomber jacket – ready to take the fight to the man.
Well, here’s my secret. Somewhere in the basement library of STV in Glasgow exists news footage of me on an NUJ picket line, too.
As this particular industrial action was being conducted by news staff at the BBC, it was probably the most middle-class strike ever. No rough-hewn blockades, no flying pickets, no braziers made from oil drums.
One colleague from the drama department who came into work that day described it as “trying to reach the car park past a waterfall of Innocent smoothies”. Our radio bulletins sub-editor even brought along a loaf of his home-made banana and walnut bread to hand around.
In total, I was an NUJ member for about 10 years. I joined it as an insurance policy – I didn’t trust any of my employers to go into bat for me if I was ever taken to task over a story I’d written or report I’d filed.
The NUJ promised to provide its members with legal representation and cover their court costs up to £50,000 in the event of any trouble – more than five times my first salary.
In the event, I proved a conscientious and diligent reporter – never putting anything on air until it was sourced, checked, double-checked and substantiated. But I still appreciated having that insurance policy.
Importantly for me as a lifelong Conservative, the NUJ is not – nor has it ever been – affiliated to the Labour Party. In fact, only about a quarter of the fifty-plus unions that make up the TUC are.
Most people aren’t in a trade union for political reasons, but because they are committed workers who want a bit more job security and the ability to argue for a better deal. That’s why I applaud Robert Halfon’s launch of the newly re-profiled Conservative Trade Unionists movement, and why I’ve agreed to sit on its advisory panel.
Conservatives have always been the party of the worker – defending trade, encouraging growth and creating opportunities for people across the UK. If we are to remain the party of the worker, we must also be the party of the workplace.
This is something Conservatives have always known. Disraeli formally legalised Trade Unions, while Baldwin established pensions for workers and widows. Margaret Thatcher held her first political office within Conservative Trade Unionists (CTU) and went on to create 250 CTU branches across the country while Prime Minister in the 1980s.
Today, the Government is reforming workplace pensions so everyone can be better protected, while Nick Boles has ably set out an explanation of moves to bring unions into the 21st century and better represent their members, not firebrand leaders.
As someone born in the winter of discontent, I have watched the Labour Party try to claim the trade union movement as its own personal fiefdom for my entire life. We shouldn’t let them. Not least because that would mean abandoning thousands of our own voters.
At 6.4 million, there are more people in trade unions than the entire populations of Wales, Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Liverpool, Nottingham and Portsmouth combined.
When the Len McCluskeys of this world take to the airwaves to denounce the Tories for some imagined thought-crime or other, it is easy to imagine trade unions as hard terrain for our party.
But even within McCluskey’s own union – Unite – a quarter of his members, when asked who they were going to vote for at May’s general election, said the Conservatives (and 40 per cent said David Cameron would make the best Prime Minister).
The view of who joins a trade union is out of date, too. Trade Union membership is increasingly female, professional and mature. Women workers are more likely to join a union than men (by 28 per cent to 22 per cent), memberships are disproportionately held by the over 50s (38 per cent of union members are over 50 compared with only 28 per cent of the wider workforce) and professional occupations account for more than a third of all union members, but only a fifth of UK employees.
We’re not just talking labourers and factory workers here (though, undoubtedly trade unions have a presence in the manufacturing and building sectors), it’s nurses, airline pilots and educational psychologists – all of whom have their own union.
Union activity has changed too – it’s not simply about collective pay bargaining or lobbying, but about safety training, pensions advice and continuous personal development.
For me, some of the most important work that unions do is encourage workplace learning. BECTU runs courses on everything from digital video editing to workplace first aid, while the PCS union helps members get their European Computer Driving Licence and will even support their studies for an Open University degree.
This is the sort of work Conservatives should not just acknowledge, but champion. We want people to get on. We want them to enhance their opportunities and prospects, and we should applaud such efforts – whatever their origin.
Last week, I wrote a piece explaining why Labour’s appalling division over Trident was betraying our country’s defence workers as well as our national security. The furious reaction from the GMB to Labour’s political posturing showed that even though it’s politically affiliated to Labour, it will speak out in defence of its workers, regardless.
Labour’s relationship with the unions is complex and multi-layered. The Party’s done a good job trying to pretend that union membership means Labour endorsement, and that the trade union movement is a political closed shop. It’s simply not true, and it’s something we must disprove.
So much misinformation and suspicion has been allowed to foment between the trade union movement and the Conservative Party that neither has a clear view of the other.
If we are to be the party of the worker, then we must also be the party of the workplace – and the workplace representative.
We must not fear, ridicule or ignore trade unions. Rather, we must recognise that they are home to thousands of Conservatives and a means to advance Conservative values.