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David Skelton: Let's offer trade union members free Conservative Party membership

Skelton DaveDavid Skelton is the Director of Renewal, a campaign organisation aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party. Follow David on Twitter.

There are almost seven million trade union members in the UK. In many of the marginal seats that Conservatives have to win to gain an overall majority in 2015, trade union members could hold the balance of power. The Party is right to disagree with the ideologically driven wreckers who lead the major unions, but that shouldn’t stop them reaching out to ordinary trade union members, many of whom are sympathetic to conservatism.

Trade unions are, after all, fairly conservative institutions. They’re voluntary institutions, which aren’t part of the big state, and they’re based on conservative ideas like mutual assistance and community. There’s also a lot of evidence that many trade unionists are very receptive to conservative ideas. Recent polling by Lord Ashcroft showed that Unite members overwhelmingly back policies like the benefit cap and right to buy, both of which are opposed by their union’s leadership. Only 12 per cent of Unite members say that they would join the Labour Party if they were no longer made affiliate members.

Conservatives are right to take on trade union leaders, like Len McCluskey, who are getting in the way of much needed reforms. But they should be careful not to make it appear that they’re hostile to trade unions and trade unionists in general. As Lord Ashcroft’s polling suggests, firebrand union leaders are almost entirely unrepresentative of their members.

Tory politicians should appeal to union members over the heads of the out of touch union leaders gathering at the TUC Congress this week. And they should learn from Margaret Thatcher when they’re trying to appeal to trade unionists. In 1950, Mrs Thatcher was elected President of the Dartford branch of Conservative Trade Unionists and, after being elected as party leader in 1975, she vastly expanded the organisation, to the extent that Conservative Trade Unionists had around 250 branches and held a major rally at Wembley before the 1979 election.

And this courting of trade unionists was clearly successful, given that Mrs Thatcher gained more votes from trade unionists than Jim Callaghan in the 1979 election. She said that Conservatives should stand for the “majority [of the union movement] which is both reasonable and moderate.” Today’s party should take heed of those wise words, and seek to build up Conservative Trade Unionists as a serious organisation again, with spokespeople around the country. They would also be wise to listen to Robert Halfon, who argues that the Party should offer free or discounted membership to trade unionists. This could give the Party a real organisational boost in parts of the country where such a boost is most needed.

The Tories should also do more to empower trade union members to decide how their political levy is used. Union members should be able to donate their levy to the Conservative Party if they wish. This takes the power out of the hands of out of touch union leaders and gives it to ordinary members. It would also give Conservatives a real incentive to appeal to rank and file union members.

Conservatives need to appeal directly to trade union members, who have no sympathy with the left wing rhetoric of their leaders. This would help the Party form a winning coalition of voters for the next election and beyond - and show that it is now the Conservatives who are the real workers’ party.


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