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Richard Balfe: Trades Unions and Conservatives

Richardbalfe_3 Richard Balfe is a former MEP appointed to liase with Britain's unions.

Around one third of Trade Union members support the Conservative Party and many of the core values of the two organisations are similar.

One day soon there is going to be a Conservative Government. That’s the way things happen in democracies. This incoming Government and the Unions, particularly in the public sector, need to get to know each other and appreciate our differences whilst at the same time recognising our joint desire to build an economically sound and strong Britain with first class public services.

The Trades Unions are built on voluntarism. Members choose to join for the benefits they obtain. There is very clear need for many working people to seek the sensible protection a Union can give.

The reality of day to day work in the average Union is helping members. In my own Union Amicus/Unite the range of services provided including first class legal advice, car and other insurance and other benefits are invaluable.

And they are not class based either. Some years ago when I had a dispute with the bursar of a public school one of my children was at it was the Unions' solicitors who successfully advised me on how to pursue my claim.

The Trades Union movement also has valuable help and support to give in many areas where Conservatives are active. The development of family friendly policies as one example, our recent series of policies entitled Women in the World Today which is all about ending inequality across all women’s issues is another.

Whilst it is true to say that the Unions have been close to the Labour Party for much of Labour's life it is not true to say that Conservatives have been unsympathetic. One can start well before the Labour Party was even founded. In the 19th Century Conservatives led the fight to abolish slavery and to improve working conditions with much of the social legislation being at the forefront of Conservative campaigns.

In 1875 following the passage of the Employers and Workmen Act Benjamin Disraeli predicted to Lady Chesterfield that the social legislation of his Ministry “will gain and retain for the Conservatives the lasting affection of the working classes”. At that time of course it was the Liberals who were the strongest exponents of Laissez Faire.

Throughout most of the 20th Century Conservative names such as Baldwin, Macmillan, Butler and Heath endeavoured to keep alive the bipartisan approach.

Today Conservatives are as anxious as ever to maintain a constructive relationship. But one important thing has changed. Whilst anxious to have the money Labour is no longer the party of the working class let alone the Unions. One Cabinet Minister James Purnell recently confessed to having “no Ideology”. Peter Mandelson is apparently “very relaxed” about the very rich.

The Unions have had very poor picking from Labour's feast and this is reflected regularly in the Trades Union journals, where there are constant complaints of being ignored and/or overlooked by Labour Ministers and policymakers.

Conservatives may have come late to this party but we are bringing a nice bottle of wine! We in the modern Conservative Party want to listen and learn from Trades Unions. 

I have been a member of a Union without interruption since I left school at the age of 16. In 1983 I was recruited to AUEW (TASS) by the then General Secretary, Ken Gill a well known Communist. I once asked him whether his party allegiance ever got in the way of his TU duties, never he said when I fight for the members I leave my Party Card out of things and fight for them as Trade Unionists. I also asked him why he wanted me in his Union “because you can do a good job for my members in Brussels” he said. An excellent example of a decent hard hitting and pragmatic Trade Unionist, and there is no doubt a lot of his members voted Conservative!

In one or two years we will be returning to Government, I am pleased that David Cameron has entrusted me with this important task. I look forward to building trust and understanding between our two great voluntary organisations.


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