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If the Tory leadership wants to restore trust in politics, they should avoid playing politics over the unions

By Peter Hoskin
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“Beyond cynical.” “Shabby and panicked.” “The height of hypocrisy.” The red corners of the Internet are turning even redder, today, at the Tory leadership’s attempt to wrap unions in with their response to the lobbying scandal.

And dyaknow what? They might have a point. Putting aside the question of whether a lobbying register will do much good – Paul Goodman argued earlier that it won’t – there is something cynical about this plan to couple it with limitations on union spending at general elections, and with tighter audits of union memberships. It appears to be a political ploy above anything else. So that when Labour decline to agree with the overall package, they can be maligned as a bunch of pro-lobbyist corruptocrats who are blocking the change we need, yadda, yadda, yadda. And, in the meantime, nothing is actually fixed.

This isn’t to say that the unions don’t need reforming. As Robert Halfon is rightly keen to point out, around a third of union members were Conservative voters ahead of the last election. I imagine more and more of them are now turning to UKIP. These are reasons enough for the unions not to be treated as Labour-by-default. And they’re reasons enough for the union bosses not to lobby the Labour Party at will and without oversight, nor to lobby freely on the Labour Party’s behalf at election time.

But it is to say that measures to reform the unions could be better timed and, certainly, more carefully prepared. What we’re seeing is another example of what I’ve highlighted before: the Tory leadership doesn’t work to build support from within the union movement, but prefers to have an almighty scrap with it from time to time. Some, including the Trade Union Reform Campaign and MPs such as Mr Halfon, have tried the former approach, but the Conservative Party hasn’t followed as a whole. There haven’t been letter-writing campaigns organised by CCHQ; there hasn’t been a concerted effort to put Tory-supporting trade unionists in front of the cameras. If there had, then union reform might today seem more a matter of fairness than of unrestrained partisanship.    

As it is, the Lib Dems – let alone Labour – have registered their objections to Tories’ latest union proposals. So they’re either going to have to be dropped, or we face an excruciating, drawn-out slog in Parliament that will probably lead nowhere. What a way to restore trust in politics.


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