By Mark Wallace
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To say the trade unions have been in the news recently is an understatement akin to saying Norman Tebbit is a bit right wing. The Falkirk scandal, the further revelations about wider union power and Ed Miliband's attempt to stem the crisis have all seen the Conservatives hammering Labour on charges of dodgy dealings and weakness in the face of union bosses.
That's all well and good. Miliband deserves to be given a hard time on the topic, Unite's actions in Falkirk were clearly wrong and there is plenty of electoral hay to be made by making Labour pay the full price of the scandal.
But this should be the beginning of Tory campaigning in relation to the unions, not the end.
Two important facts have come up again and again in recent weeks. The trade unions have 6.5m members – and a large slice of them vote Conservative. The mass membership of the union movement, while a much smaller proportion of the workforce than in the past, is still a sizeable chunk of the electorate. Given that significant percentages are Conservative sympathisers, and an outright majority are no longer Labour voters, some Tory voices are starting to wonder if there is more to life than attacking the unions.
Most notably, Robert Halfon MP's 2012 essay "Stop the Union-Bashing" [PDF] argued that Conservatives should view the unions as a route to re-engaging with working men and women, and called for an end to Tory attacks on the trade union movement.
I wouldn't go so far. There can be little doubt that some trade unions are threats to conservative values including the free market and low taxes, as well as essential policies such as free schools and welfare reform.
Indeed, as the Falkirk scandal and the continued practice of taking political fund money from their members without their permission shows, they can even damage the democratic process itself.
Where the unions do wrong, they must be challenged.
But there are ways in which the Conservatives can – and must – seek to win votes from the mass trade union membership, too. While bashing can sometimes be the right thing to do, it should not be our only activity.
Three campaigns offer positive opportunities to make inroads into the left's monopoly control of the trade union movement – and win Conservative votes at the same time.
Reach the Tory trade union grassroots
Though you wouldn't know it from listening to their leaders, at least a third of trade union members view themselves as Conservative voters. Many others vote UKIP, or are floating voters whom we can and should appeal to. As Halfon points out, this is a demographic of working people, only a minority of which votes Labour – these trade union members should be a target audience for us.
Now that their existence is clear, we must overcome the historic problems in how to reach them. With the unions themselves either affiliated to Labour or controlled by non-Tory leadership cliques, it will always be difficult to go through the unions' official structures to appeal to their members.
Digital technology has a part to play. Everywhere else in life, the internet is proving to be a great force for creative disruption – allowing companies to reach markets that have never before been within their reach. So it should be in politics.
As online advertising becomes increasingly advanced, it becomes possible to target people based on specific interests and cross-cuts that were previously unreachable. The Conservative Party should seek, for example, to advertise on Facebook to people who self-define as Conservative, but are also members of trade union groups.
Divide good and bad unions
As well as distinguishing on a campaigning level between left-wing union bosses and their more open-minded grassroots members, we should draw a line between good and bad unions.
Conservatives believe in freedom, in voluntary action and in the power capitalism gives to the individual. For all of those reasons, we should recognise that there is a model of trade unionism which should be embraced, not just tolerated.
A notable phenomenon during the recent recession was that far fewer jobs were lost than in similar downturns in previous decades. In many workplaces, this was in part due to the willingness of private sector unions to be flexible and negotiate. Last year, the Vauxhall plant in Ellesmere Port was saved because local union representatives were willing to accept a tougher pay and conditions deal in order to save all of the jobs in the factory. That they were from Unite is further evidence of the gulf between left wing union leaders and their members on the ground.
It's an imperfect dividing line, but a gulf has developed between unions in the public sector and the private sector – while the former look like an increasingly tired tribute band, paying homage to their 1970s forebears, the latter have embraced new technologies and the challenges of the modern economy.
At a national campaigning level, David Cameron and others should set out what they view as good trade unionism. Reasonable collective representation to negotiate productively with employers. Supporting productive training, rather than miles of red tape, to improve the quality of the workforce. Helping to save jobs by making reasonable concessions in tough times rather than guaranteeing redundancies by refusing to see any cuts in pay.
We should always criticise loony left and luddite tendencies. But we should marry those attacks with the praise which good trade unions deserve.
Offer non-political alternatives
It's often forgotten that most people don't join trade unions to support their political campaigns, still less to donate to the Labour Party. While we criticise the corrupt opt-out system for channeling the money of millions of conservatives and others into left wing campaigning, we rarely pause to consider why, if that is the case, such people join a union in the first place.
The answer often lies in the perks that membership brings: insurance against loss of earnings incurred through injury or unemployment; legal representation in the event of a workplace dispute; discounts won through the power of bulk-bargaining; even private health insurance in some cases.
Millions of trade unionists join to buy into those benefits, and put up with having some of their cash creamed off to spend on things they disagree with as part of the price. Would the 30% of union members who vote Tory prefer to get those deals more cheaply and without funding their political opponents? Probably.
So why don't we offer an alternative? There is clearly a gap in the market for a non-politicised commercial offer to such workers – a company that provides exactly those benefits without any of the bolshy baggage attached. It would be cheaper, too, given that it wouldn't be taking money to spend on political donations or an army of campaigners.
This last suggestion isn't a job for the Conservative Party (though there is a case for setting up a Tory trade union, too), but sympathetic investors would be wise to take it up themselves. This is a productive business opportunity and a chance to wick off the artificially high number of supporters enjoyed by left wing trade unions, too.
In short, there are ways to win votes from trade unionists, ways to promote more conservative trade unionism and ways to reduce the funds the left raises on the back of the benefits trade unions offer to their members. It is a big task, but a necessary one – which is all the more reason that it should start soon.