Coffee House

Margaret Thatcher: friend of the unions?

11 September 2013

2:10 PM

11 September 2013

2:10 PM

When Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 election, she was helped into Downing Street by what many of today’s politicians would regard as an unlikely group of Tory voters. The votes of trade unionists were crucial to Margaret Thatcher beating Jim Callaghan in 1979.

And this didn’t happen by accident – Mrs Thatcher, the one-time President of the Dartford branch of Conservative Trade Unionists had made active efforts to appeal to those moderate trade unionists who felt let down by their leaders. After becoming leader in 1975, she set out to revive Conservative Trade Unionists. By the 1979 election, the organisation had 250 branches and was able to hold a pre-election rally at Wembley.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time that Conservatives courted trade unionists. It was a Conservative Prime Minister, the Earl of Derby who, encouraged by Disraeli, as with the 1867 Reform Act, legalised trade unions in 1867. In an otherwise unmemorable speech, Ed Miliband yesterday quoted Derby when he said that, previously, ‘the voices of Manchester, of Birmingham, of Leeds, and of all the other important centres of manufacturing industry were absolutely unheard.’

Following on from this, Disraeli’s Government, in the teeth of fierce opposition from Gladstone’s Liberals, legalised picketing and increased the power of workers to enforce contracts. Given that this was part of an impressive batch of social reform, it’s little wonder that an early Labour-Liberal MP commented that, ‘the Tories have done more for the working class in five years than the Liberals did in fifty.’ Harold Macmillan also made clear that he believed that Conservative success in the 1950s was to an extent down to the support of trade unionists for the Conservatives.


Today’s Conservatives could learn from their predecessors when it comes to appealing to appealing to ordinary trade union members, who are so badly represented by union leaders. Polling by Lord Ashcroft showed that, on many issues, such as the benefit cap and right to buy, the instincts of the majority of trade unionists are pretty conservative.

A third of trade union members consistently vote Tory and that proportion could be higher if the Tories looked to appeal to the majority of moderate trade unionists, who have no sympathy with the political grandstanding of their leaders. The Party could look to the example of Mrs Thatcher by re-establishing an active Conservative Trade Unionists organisation, with spokesmen and women around the country – a real home for conservative minded trade unionists.

Conservatives should listen to Harlow MP, Rob Halfon, who argues that the Tory Party should offer free or discounted membership to trade union members – providing the Party with a real chance to boost their membership and organisation in parts of the country where it has been dwindling for decades. They should also be inspired by past attempts to empower ordinary union members, such as given them the right to ballot over strike action, by giving them the right to decide where their political levy goes to – with options that include ‘Conservative’ or ‘none of the above’.

A 1978 Conservative poster was headlined ‘Why Every Trade Unionist Should Consider Voting Conservative’. It was effective then and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be as effective today, with the majority of trade unionists having no sympathy with the hard left rhetoric and blocking of necessary public sector reform of the likes of Len McCluskey.

There are, after all, almost 7 million trade union members in the UK and two thirds of public sector workers are members of trade unions. In many Northern and Midlands marginal seats, where the number of public sector workers is above the national average, union members might actually hold the balance of power.

Conservatives should be careful that ‘union bashing’ doesn’t tar union members and their leaders with the same brush. Instead, the Party should consider how to appeal to union members over the heads of union leaders. They should consider the words of Margaret Thatcher in 1975 and appeal directly to the voices of ‘reason and moderation’, who make up the majority of the trade union membership.

David Skelton is the founder of Renewal, a campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party. 

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • NotInMyNAme

    All these attempts by entryist Lefties like Skelton, Halfon etc will result in nothing. Give up. We don’t want you in our movement. And take your unions with you.

  • dalai guevara

    Unions are apolitical – it’s about the work/life balance, not politics.
    Just like Ukip, they are not in Parliament, yet calling all the shots.

    • saffrin

      Unions are apolitical.
      Of course they are, laws get made in Parliament do they not. It was the Unions that brought the Labour party to us.
      Where are they now?
      Nowhere. Both Labour and the Unions are lost in limbo.
      If Milliband wants to disaffiliate with the Labour movement, all he need do is leave the Labour party.
      The Labour party IS the Unions.

      • dalai guevara

        Ah, I get it now.
        The unions are in Parliament, yet they shouldn’t be. Because they are apolitical. Silly me.

  • telemachus

    Worry not about Union Bashing or not. It is irrelevant
    Whatever McCluskey, Prentice and friendly fossils say ordinary folk understand that reasonable considered policies do not come with votes for the coalition parties
    This is not 1979
    Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon and Joe Gormley are quaint figures of the past and Tory attempts to create bogies make them look dated

    • saffrin

      We had a canteen where I worked back in the 70’s. Full English in the morning, including porridge, cornflakes toast & marmalade if we wanted it. Lunchtime was always three courses, soup, main & pudding.
      All we get now is vending machines selling sweets, biscuits, chocolate and all manner of unhealthy junk-food.
      Back in the 70’s, if we had a problem at work it would be sorted in 99.9% of the time in minutes after just a quick word.
      Now all is “tribunals” that get blown out of all proportion, take years to settle and cost a fortune in lawyer fees and a whole heap of BS.
      If Milliband wants the Labour party to win any credibility among the politically aware working class at least, he needs to undo Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws, all except the secret ballot.
      Until he does, he is just another weak wimpy Tory no different from Clegg or Cameron.

      • telemachus

        The public dont care to turn the clock back
        Unions are finished and the agonal breaths are a turn off to the people

      • tjamesjones

        thanks Saffrin I think that’s a useful point. Whether or not the public care to ‘turn the clock back’, the fact is that the modern labour party presents itself as the mouthpiece of the unions, and is still funded by them.

        • saffrin

          The modern labour party presents itself as an outfit of lost souls with no direction only hatred.
          Miliband as well as the BBC’s version of party activists have made it perfectly plan they want nothing to do with the unions apart from their funding.
          Miliband & his conspirators are making backroom deals with Cameron & Clegg to get taxpayer funding pushed through by way of stopping UKIP’s rise.
          The LibLabCon party will outlaw private donations to political parties claiming it only leads to corruption & undue influence.
          At the same time they will give themselves taxpayer funding based on an average number of representatives in Parliament over a given time.
          The purpose being to kill UKIP stone dead by the lack of funding needed to address the little people.
          There is much treason in today’s Houses of Parliament.
          All of which complient to the Brussels Men.

    • JohnPReid

      When did the Tories every try to make Joe for let look like a bogey man?

      • AlanGiles


        • JohnPReid

          Corrective text,changed Gormley to for let, when did the Tories ever try to make Gormley look like a bogey man, he was a national hero,