When Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 election, she was helped into Downing Street by what many of today’s politicians would regard as an unlikely group of Tory voters. The votes of trade unionists were crucial to Thatcher beating Jim Callaghan that year.
Yet she was not the first Conservative leader to be in favor with the unions and those who belong to them. It was Edward Smith-Stanley, the Earl of Derby who, encouraged by Benjamin Disraeli, as with the 1867 Reform Act, legalized trade unions in 1867. Disraeli’s government, in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Liberals, later legalized picketing and increased the power of workers to enforce contracts. Given that this was part of an impressive batch of social reform, it’s little wonder that an early Labour-Liberal parliamentarian commented, “the Tories have done more for the working class in five years than the Liberals did in fifty.”
Today, only a third of trade union members consistently votes Conservative. That number could be higher if the party looked to appeal to the majority of moderate trade unionists who have no sympathy with the political grandstanding of their leaders. Polling by Lord Ashcroft shows that, on many issues, such as a social benefit cap or a right to buy scheme — whereby social housing tenants are allowed to purchase there homes from the government — the instincts of most union members are pretty right-wing.
The Conservatives ought to remember this and perhaps take on board some suggestions, such as those of Robert Halfon, the party’s representative from Harlow, who argues that they should offer free or discounted membership to trade unionists — providing the Conservative Party with a real chance to boost its membership and organization in parts of the country where it has been dwindling for decades. In the north of England and Midlands, where the number of public-sector workers is above the national average and Labour typically does well, union members could hold the balance of power.
It is not just the members who are conservative though. The unions themselves have turned community minded and somewhat capitalist — embodying Prime Minister David Cameron’s “big society.”
Take, for instance, the union Unite which offered the unemployed a chance to join the union for as little as 50 pence per week. In return, they offer legal support services and education facilities. Altogether, trade union members are eight times more likely to engage in voluntary work than the average person.
On the capitalist side, Unite and Unison advertise tax minimizing services through a company called TaxRefundCo, as well as home, car and private medical services. There is even a fundraising lottery and there are more trade union members on private health plans (3.5 million) than there are that go on strike.
The Conservatives ought to embrace these union members and be careful that “union bashing” doesn’t tar union members and their leaders with the same brush. Instead, the party must consider how to appeal to union members over the heads of their leaders. If they follow Thatcher’s example and appeal directly to the voices of “reason and moderation,” which make up the majority of the trade union membership, the Conservatives might yet deny Labour a victory in the next election.