Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow.
When I was a child, I remember going to regularly to Great Ormond Street Hospital, where a doctor would bang my knee with a short stick which had a rubber on the end. Unfailingly, like Pavlov's dog, my knee always jolted. I thought of that knee jolt after reading the Taxpayer’s Alliance response to my article that suggested Conservatives should embrace trade unionism.
The TPA response was to ignore what I said about union militancy in favour of putting up a few Aunt Sallies. This was all the more disappointing as I regard the TPA as the forefront of progressive tax reform – rather than an angry Pavlov Mutt, barking if anyone dares to mention the term "trade union" in the same
breath as "Conservative".
For a long time now, I have believed that we can’t abandon the 6.5 million British union members, just because some are extreme, or indulge in left wing political activism. Millions of them vote Conservative, and not all are affiliated to the Labour Party. Of the 58 unions affiliated with the TUC, just 15 are formally affiliated with Labour. That leaves 43 non-affiliated unions in Britain.
The TPA suggests that unions "aren’t the little Platoons the Big Society needs" and are "creatures of Government that could doom localism". I think it’s more complex than that. My argument is that at their best many unions are the very core of the Big Society, rooted in their communities. Behind all the political rhetoric, they are grassroots organisations, providing much needed services to their members. Look at their websites and you will find goods and services – including private health insurance – that lessen the burden on the state. In fact, some unions are shining beacons of capitalism: who knew, for example, that the NUS, the TUC of student unions, is one of the biggest wholesalers of vodka in the UK? Or that it part-owns an Insurance Company for commercial reasons?
The TPA says that I have misinterpreted the results of a TUC Report into volunteering because the survey is only of “union reps”. Yes, it is true that I am trusting the TUC at their word, and readers will make their own judgements, as to whether it is wise to do so. But, in the technical annexe, it explains that that the survey was of a broad sweep of workplace representatives, environmental officers, shop stewards, safety officials, branch officers, union learning officers, and so on. We should not write these people off: yes, some of them will be "nurse pilgrims", but others will be hard-working people.
But either way, we should not split hairs about statistics. The important point is that union members and representatives are more likely to be volunteers and help to build social capital. And this is not just TUC propaganda: many other academic studies reach a similar conclusion Interestingly, a recent study in Sweden also showed that “trade union members are more likely to volunteer than non-members”. This is something we need to consider, as the Big Society reforms really get moving. (According to the study in Sweden, people are also more likely to volunteer if they have a job and earn a good salary.)
There are many areas where the TPA and I agree about Trade Unions. For example, we are absolutely at one in stopping taxpayer-funded politics. Unions should not be funded from the Taxpayer. I also am in sympathy with tougher strike laws for essential public services, and giving Union members more freedom about where to send their political donations.
But the TPA and others should distinguish between union militants and ordinary members, who join unions often just for the excellent benefits – such as private medical care and life insurance. Moreover, is it really wrong that workers in large corporations have a body to lobby for their interests, on wages, legal issues and health and safety? They have as much right to have their unions, as hard-pressed taxpayers have for their Union: the Taxpayers Alliance.
Behind the rhetoric, unions are often simply businesses, like any other industrial group. Tories believe in free enterprise and choice. Workers should have the liberty to organise. When Unions were first established, they resisted some state involvement – such as a generalised minimum wage – because it undermined the voluntary collectivist principle. Although they became bureaucratic institutions and (under Labour and Tory) became blurred with the state in the 1950s-1970s there is still a big society "core" that can – and should – be utilised.
That is why I believe that the Conservative Party should seek to formally affiliate itself with sensible, entrepreneurial unions and re-establish/strengthen the Conservative Trade Unionist Movement. The more Conservatives that were involved in trade unionism, the less militancy there would be. Groups like the TPA should act less reflexively and more laterally – and work with union moderates, to help the Big Society and in doing so bring about a smaller state.