To the question of whether one can be a Conservative and a trade unionist, the answer is of course yes. But perhaps in the same way that a turkey can theoretically vote for Christmas.
Carl Packman reports from Conservative Party conference
With the Ed Miliband/unions situation there are no simple explanations. Perhaps it was an overzealous attempt at shifting the ‘Red Ed’ tag, or a moderate turn that went badly wrong.
Whatever the circumstances, the way it has been sold since seems rather honest. Members of affiliated trade unions have only been members of the Labour party in name – it now has the opportunity to try and earn their affiliation through party membership.
Of course there are difficult questions about the trade union link to deal with. As David Skelton of Renewal – a grouping of Conservatives who want to achieve a wider appeal for the party – has said, Tories are not naturally an enemy to trade unions.
“Recent polling by Lord Ashcroft”, he notes, “showed that Unite members overwhelmingly back policies like the benefit cap and Right-to Buy, both of which are opposed by their union’s leadership. Only 12 per cent of Unite members say that they would join the Labour Party if they were no longer made affiliate members.”
Furthermore, if unions seem militantly left-wing today could this be because their leadership, who often don’t actually speak on behalf of members, dominate the conversation?
David Goodhart, the director of Demos, exemplified a case of this recently:
“In a large London council, the Unison branch has about 4,500 members of whom around 25 turned up to the last meeting, where a motion was proposed condemning the Woolwich murder, the EDL and Islamic extremism. At the urging of the Socialist Workers Party, an amendment was proposed deleting the reference to Islamic extremism. It passed by 13 votes to 11.”
British trade union membership is certainly not a black and white issue. This was the topic of at least one very interesting fringe debate at party conference by Balpa, the British Airline Pilots Association (sometimes jokingly referred to as the richest trade union in the UK).
Robert Halfon MP, speaking at the event, pointed out the uncomfortable truth that many trade unions are not affiliated to the Labour party anyway. As a passing comment, it is true that more trade unionists are on private health schemes than who go on strike (as he first noted in a Demos report Stop the union-bashing).
Isabel Hardman, editor of Coffee House, the Spectator Blog, also on the panel, reminded a largely Conservative audience that members of that party were warned not to “union bash” too much during the Falkirk scandal, lest they offended the general populus of unionists who may well be voters of the Tory party.
But even if there are Conservative sympathisers inside trade unions, does this actually make the party natural allies of trade unionism? What does it say about a party that needs reminding not to union bash? Does it help, for example, when Lord Howell of Guildford has suggested that the “desolate” north east would be the perfect place for fracking?
Conservatives and the North East, it ought to be remembered, is a sore spot for workers and trade unionists. While Thatcher felt she was clearing the way for a brighter future, many are in agreement that she turned much of the area – and others – into wastelands. If there is desolation, then she’s largely at fault.
Thatcher referred to the “moaning minnies” while on a visit to the North East in 1985. Conservatives, it should also be remembered, have been the authors of much anti-union legislation, not to mention employment laws such as changes to unfair dismissal services from one year to two. Though there are noted characters like Halfon, Labour seem the natural ally of unions, both politically and philosophically – and even with reform that seems unlikely to change.
What we certainly can say is that trade unions are sometimes conservative – with a small c – institutions. David Skelton, in his aforementioned piece, pointed out that:
“they’re voluntary institutions, which aren’t part of the big state, and they’re based on conservative ideas like mutual assistance and community”.
But, strange as this might seem, the Conservative party is no longer the party of conservatism; the Labour party, it can be justifiably said, does have these principles at its heart.
To the question of whether one can be a Conservative and a trade unionist, the answer is of course yes. But perhaps in the same way that a turkey can theoretically vote for Christmas.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.