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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.

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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. 

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