Last week there were reports that Unite were going to be offering unemployed people a chance to join their trade union for as little as 50p a week. In doing so, they would be offered services such as legal support and education facilities.
Instead of welcoming this as a brilliant Big Society idea to help the jobless, some Conservatives indulged in their traditional union-bashing – making no distinction between the politics of Len McCluskey and the services that were being offered to vulnerable people. The principle behind this idea is something that every Conservative should support. The more help that can be offered to those without work, the better. I wish the Conservative Party offered these services as well.
I am a proud trade unionist and a member of Prospect. I am also a proud Conservative. Unlike some on the right, I don’t believe these two statements are mutually exclusive. In fact, quite the opposite. My argument in Stop the Union Bashing, was that Conservatives and trade unionists can happily co-exist, and actually have much in common.
First, behind the Bob Crows of this world, trade unions are largely voluntary organisations. Research has shown that trade union officers are now eight times more likely to engage in voluntary work than the average person. Most unions are community organisations, predominantly funded by their members. What is this, if not the Big Society in action? Of course, I accept that there has been some serious abuses of facility time in the public sector, and that this must be stopped. However, of the 58 unions in the TUC, only 15 are Labour-affiliated, leaving 43 non-affiliated unions in Britain. My experience as a constituency MP has also led me to believe that most facility time and trade union volunteerism is genuine. For example, in my constituency the bus company Arriva employs a union official – on facility time. They find this is good value for money, in terms of supporting staff and resolving grievances, which might otherwise end in a tribunal.
Second, trade unions are now as capitalist as any FTSE 100 company. Look at some of the services that unions offer. Unite and Unison advertise tax-minimising services, through a company called TaxRefundCo, as well as home, car and private medical services. There is even a fundraising lottery, which is hugely in advance of anything the Conservative Party offers its members. There are far more unionists who have signed up to private health care – upto 3.5 million, according to the Telegraph – than who go on strike.
Third, the union bosses may be socialist, but an increasing proportion of their members are not. Millions of trade union members are actually Conservative voters. A 2009 Populus poll showed that around a third of Unite members intended to vote Conservative in 2010. Unite is the UK’s largest union, with 1.5 million members. Another Ipsos MORI poll in 2009, commissioned by Unison, showed that the Conservative party was actually leading at the time among public sector workers – many of whom are Unison members.
Everyone remembers Margaret Thatcher for her arguments with Arthur Scargill and co. But what they’ve forgotten is that she was a trade union member herself. She beefed up the Conservative Trade Unionist movement, helped by union officials such as Norman Tebbit, Peter Bottomley and others after 1975. Together they founded more than 250 branches across the country and hiring more support staff at Central Office. By 1979, during the general election, unions even held a mass rally at Wembley Stadium, under the banner: Trade Unions for a Conservative Victory! Mrs Thatcher understood the difference between union militants and union members.
I am not naive about the political activities of some trade unions – and think that the unions’ political levy should be “opt in”, rather than “opt out”. But we should remember that some facility time is invaluable, and good value for money – as some private firms and Whitehall Departments have shown. Consider the First Division Association, for example. I have also met with Conservative Trade Unionists, who say that to make facility time completely union-funded would take away the control that Departments currently exercise over how that time is spent.
So it is no good Conservatives carping about union militancy, when we refuse to get involved, and do stand in union elections. Instead, we need to think about giving free party membership to union members, and the Conservative Party offering the same kinds of services that Unite are now giving the unemployed.
Ed Miliband’s Labour party may have become a ‘class’ act, bashing bankers and business – which plays into the hands of those who believe that the Labour party hates aspiration and wealth-creation. But why should Conservatives be merely a mirror image of this, and play into Tory stereotypes of trade union bashing?
Robert Halfon is Member of Parliament for Harlow, and author of ‘Stop the Union Bashing’, published by DEMOS.
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