Dr Spencer Pitfield OBE is director of Conservative Trade Unionists.
The coming together of working people, seeking betterment, independence and the provision of services on a pooled basis, is entirely consistent with a Conservative view of civil society.
In 1894, Frederick Rogers of the bookbinders said that “there must be an independent life within the state to prevent government becoming tyranny and the trade unions will be chief among those who shall call that independent life into being.”
Significantly, unions at this time were acutely sensitive to the needs of private enterprise. Politically they were incremental, piecemeal and pragmatic – not in any way revolutionary.
Philip Collins wrote recently “to read extracts from the early proceedings of the congresses of the trade unions is more like eavesdropping on an assembly of today’s Federation of Small Businesses than on a contemporary council of Unite”.
And so in its earliest form, trade unionism focused through representation of workers, particularly on better communication with employers. In so doing this then ‘modernist’ approach lessened the intervention of Government in daily employment disputes, securing greatly better employment rights and working practices for all working people.
More recently active participation of union members has declined, and the leadership of some of these larger, now federated, trade unions has drifted to what might be deemed a more irresponsible and less representative approach.
As such the time is now right for an even stronger Conservative narrative for moderate and responsible trade unionism.
It was Benjamin Disraeli who legislated to allow picketing. In 1931 Stanley Baldwin said: “had the employers of past generations all of them dealt fairly with their men there would have been no unions.”
By 1951 the Conservative Party manifesto of the day read “we must free ourselves from our impediments. Of all impediments, the class war is the worst.”
In 1975, addressing the then Conservative Trade Unionists, Margaret Thatcher said:
“As you well know, for over 100 years, ever since Disraeli’s day, since before the Labour Party existed, it has been the belief of the Conservative Party that the law should not only permit, but that it should assist, the trades unions to carry out their legitimate function of protecting their members.”
During the general election campaign of 1979, Conservative supporting trade unionists held a rally in Wembley Stadium, displaying a banner emblazoned with the words ‘Trade Unions for a Conservative Victory!’
More recently David Cameron has focused clearly on this shared endeavour and revived work ethic when he said that: “We in this party are a trade union too.”
In many ways unions are capitalistic and consumerist institutions helping to sustain a free economy. Unions frequently offer their members services that foster individual responsibility and independence from the state, such as medical and legal insurance, tax advice and retail discounts.
Many Conservative-voting trade unionists express incredulity at press coverage of the preponderance of left-leaning participants in Britain’s unions. Within unions, there is a large number of Conservatives who have a different perspective on what unions should do to improve material standards of living, secure jobs and support growth.
Our newly established Conservative Trade Unionists (CTU) offers a means for these unionists to come together.
By signalling our support for moderate and responsible vehicles of workplace representation, we are also signalling that we are in touch with hard-working and aspirational blue-collar communities.
In 1975 Margaret Thatcher told Conservative Trade Unionists:
“It is not just for the benefit of this Party—it is for the benefit of the trades union movement and of the whole country, that those of reason and moderation should be as active and determined in union affairs as are the extremists.”
More trade unionists voted for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives than Jim Callaghan’s ‘crisis, what crisis’ Labour in 1979.
There are almost seven million trade unionists in the UK. In 2009, a Populus poll found that over thirty percent of Unite members intended to back the Conservatives in the 2010 General Election. In 2012, only 12 out of 58 unions in the Trade Union Congress were Labour affiliated.
We must make our own ‘march through the institutions’. Joining non-Labour affiliated unions to our cause, getting involved in their management, and contesting internal elections are all ways we can do this.
The 1950 Conservative Party Manifesto contained the following passage: ‘Conservatives should not hesitate to join Trade Unions as so many of our party have already done, and to play their full part in their union affairs’; reminding readers that ‘the foundation of industrial endeavour must be good human relationships, not impersonal control from aloft and from afar’.
This would be a good place to start.