In bashing trade unions, the Tories are looking a gift horse in the mouth

by Kevin Meagher

As part of his efforts in opposition to detoxify the Tories’ brand, David Cameron appointed a turncoat former Labour MEP, Richard Balfe, to build bridges with the trade union movement. There was even feverish talk of a “Clause Four moment” with the hope that Cameron might address the annual conference of the TUC – the only Tory leader in 144 to do so.

It never came to pass and Balfe is long forgotten; but in government, Cameron has pretty much left alone the settlement bequeathed by Labour. There is no love for trade unions, but there has been no return to the malicious nonsense of the 1980s, when trade unionists were dismissed as “the enemy within” and staff at GCHQ were banned from even joining a union.

However, writing in today’s Daily Express, Tory Party Chairman, Grant Schapps, retreats to old habits, scolding “trade union barons” for using today’s one-day stoppage to “disrupt families and schools whenever and wherever they feel like it.” And in a bid to throw red meat to his core vote, Cameron is now floating the idea of applying turnout thresholds to trade union strike ballots.

If fewer than half of union members vote to strike, then it cannot go ahead. To be sure, this is generated by regular RMT action on London Underground which invariably sees a relatively low turnout in strike ballots. (Boris Johnson, in particular, has been rattling his sabre on this issue for ages).

Of course, the double standard – hypocrisy – of a coalition government admonishing trade unions for not achieving a 50 per cent threshold for industrial action, is obvious enough. (For that matter, hardly a single councillor in the UK would be able to take up their seat).

But what the Tories don’t seem to recognise is that by retreating to their union-bashing comfort zone they are shooting not only at those they regard as ‘hostiles’, but at ‘friendlies’ too. Or to put it another way, not all trade unionists are placard-wielding lefties.

And the public seems to think so too. Tracking research conducted by Ipsos-Mori shows that on the cusp of the Winter of Discontent in September 1975, 82 per cent of people agreed that “most trade unions are controlled by extremists and militants”. By February 2014, this figure had fallen to just 29 per cent.

But it’s not just public opinion that should make Tory strategists think again, it is voting intentions too. They may not realise it, but many trade unionists actually vote Tory.

In a poll of Unite members, commissioned last year by Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft, nearly a quarter of respondents claimed to support the Conservatives:

Just under half (49 per cent) of Unite members said they would vote Labour in an election tomorrow; 23 per cent would vote Tory. Four in ten thought David Cameron would make the best Prime Minister of the three leaders, putting him just six points behind Ed Miliband.

Indeed, a YouGov poll just before last year’s Trade Union Congress showed that 16 per cent of the members of Labour-affiliated trade unions said they actually supported the Conservatives. (And, for that matter, 12 per cent backed UKIP).

David Cameron’s modernisation of the Tories long since ran out of steam, but in returning to the union demonising of yesteryear, he risks not only misjudging the public mood but alienating a sizeable chunk of his own potential supporters as well.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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5 Responses to “In bashing trade unions, the Tories are looking a gift horse in the mouth”

  1. Robert says:

    Union-bashing by the Tories is out of date and stupid. I do not “support” strikes but workers have the right to withdraw their labour if they have a dispute with their employer.

  2. Ex labour says:

    Unfortunately my experience of being a trade union member is that in ballots the moderates don’t tend to vote and the agitators do. Hence you get a very low turn out and a vote to strike based on that low turnout. So when they say 70% voted to stike! what they don’t say is that only 15% of the membership voted.

    Also if yesterday was one union taking action over a specific dispute, then fine, but what we had was some political gesturing from unions and assorted rag, tag and bobtail groups who are professional protesters.

    On Radio Five they interviewed some woman who just gave a clichéd rant on austerity blah, blah. Worst of all she did it in a Brummy accent. Was this “white Dee” I asked myself ?

  3. Landless Peasant says:

    More to the point, why is Ed Miliband not supportive of strike action?

  4. Madasafish says:

    To reply to Landless Peasant who wants to know why Ed is not supporting strike action:

    The strikers are public servants paid out of tax revenues. Those who pay taxes generally dislike strikes- especially when they are inconvenienced.. and see protestations of poverty at odds with very generous pension schemes and the worst record of absenteeism and sickness in the UK that public servants enjoy.

    If Ed supports them, he is open to the – correct – criticism that he supports producer interests against consumers.

    He is trying to ride two horses going in different directions..The problem is that the rider can end falling off both .

  5. BenM says:


    So many misnomers I don’t know where to start:

    1. Are you seriously trying to suggest workers in public sector aren’t taxpayers?!

    2. Public sector pension schemes aren’t “generous”. They are at the level private sector schemes ought to be. Instead poverty level pension provision in the private sector is held up as the standard rather than being condemned, as it would be in a society not lumbered by rightwing economics.

    3. Public sector workers are usually consumers of public sector services too.

    4. The polls suggest the public has seen through Tory attempts to drive wedges between workers as if one sector is somehow different from another. Divisive politics worked for a myopic Thatch in the 80s when the Left was divided, but looks to have zero effect now.

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