Richard Balfe: We must give trade unions a chance to be part of the solution rather than typecast them as part of the problem
Richard Balfe is a former Labour MEP who joined the Conservatives in 2002; in 2008 he was appointed to liase on behalf of David Cameron with Britain's trade unions. Here he reflects on what observed at the TUC conference Liverpool.
Yesterday afternoon, as Gordon Brown rose to address Congress, quite a few people wondered when would be the next time that the TUC President introduced "The Prime Minister" and who that might be. Yes - it is not beyond possibility that at this time next year David Cameron could become the first Conservative Prime Minister to address the TUC.
It would be fair to say that the political atmosphere is subdued, although it should be remembered that not all TU delegates are Labour and fewer than half of the Unions are affiliated to the Labour Party. Nonetheless, the TUC has always been thought of as a Labour heartland. In many ways it still is, but it is also a very practical place with most debates about workplace issues not political theory.
There are votes but never any close ones: all the problems are ironed out before the debate begins and even if there are difficulties they will normally be resolved by having two composite resolutions on the same
topic: both will then be passed with delegates mainly abstaining rather than voting against the one they do not like.
Occassionally the politics comes to the fore but in rather quiet ways. As Congress ended last night, the results of the election to the General Council were read out. Notably Bob Crow, scourge of the commuting public, was not elected to the TUC governing Council. However in the tradition of the best Clubs, his vote was not read out and only the winners had their totals announced. He was just "not elected".
Public services has been a big topic and Pensions certainly figured in most public sector debates. As with most things that sound simple it is not. Firstly, pensioners have acquired rights and so reform is a project
for the future. Secondly, the difference between the State Basic Pension and the minimum Social Security Level is around £5,000, which is remarkably close to the median Public Service Pension.
It is easy to tackle the mega Pensions of the top paid Local Government workers and - incidentally - that would not be unpopular in the TU movement. However we must look carefully at the rest of the problem. The fact of the matter is that DC pensions are poverty pensions and they are not the way forward. Somehow, either Government or Private Industry has to devise a Pension regime which will reward a lifetime of work with a comfortable though not luxurious old age.
Working effectively with the Trade Unions is a major challenge. In most cases their aims are not that far from ours but they do fulfill a valuable role. They are first and foremost good examples of Voluntary organisations and secondly, as we set out to reform public services, we must give them a chance to be part of the solution and not typecast them as part of the problem.
As a final political thought, don't forget that around 35% of Trade Union members vote Conservative. They are to be found in hospitals ,schools ,Town Halls, JobCentres and a whole range of other public employments near you. They may or may not hold the key to the election, but they are certainly a group to be understood.
In the season after the conferences David Cameron will again be meeting Brendan Barber to continue the very constructive dialogue they have so far had. The Trade Union movement not only knows that change is coming; they also realise that a government with a mandate has the right to shape the public policies of the country. Our test is to get them to work with us to deliver the sort of prosperous Britain with a fair chance for all that both sides want.