Where was the Conservative heart?

At 9pm last Thursday I was worried. Sat on my own in McDonald’s, having a calorie packed break between a day of canvassing and evening of analysing, I had my first opportunity to reflect on the campaign. I was certain that the Conservatives would end the night with a majority of over 60, but couldn’t shake off the feeling that our victory would be as shallow as it would be big. The reports I’d received from around the country – London excluded – at first appearance were good. Long-time Labour voters were telling our people that they would switch to the Conservatives, most often after dabbling with Ukip in 2015.

When you delved deeper the momentum was less impressive. To near unanimity the reasons these ex-Labour voters gave for breaking their life-long abstinence from voting blue was negativity towards the Labour leadership. None of them seemed to be positive about us. As I finished my chips I’d concluded that ex-Labour voters would only be lending the Conservative Party their votes, and we would have to work hard over the next five years to get them to happily vote for us. At 10pm, when the exit poll was announced, I realised that most of these people had decided to lend their vote to Corbyn.

It is not hard to understand why people who instinctively support Labour, in the end when their pen was hovering over the ballot paper, could not bring themselves to mark a cross next to the Conservative candidate. The Conservative General Election campaign was depressing. Our message was that the world is rubbish but please vote for us as we are best at making rubbish decisions. Those who work in the public sector or have not seen a pay-rise in many years were being asked to choose between a Government that would continue to mange the slow decline of their lifestyles or the chaotic unknown. After almost a decade of austerity the chaotic unknown seemed less of a threat than another decade of 1% pay-rises.

The Conservatives did not show their heart. We did not say why we wanted to govern and what we wanted to achieve for people. What is the point of having a strong and stable economy? What will the best Brexit mean for me? The Party missed a golden opportunity to tell those who would not normally ever give us a chance that we care about them. There are large swaths of the population who mistrust our motives and we did not offer them the opportunity to change their minds.

None of this should have been a surprise. Robert Halfon MP, in a speech at the end of March, warned us that “the Left have an incredible, powerful message, which is very simple when they knock on a door, which is that they want to help the underdog; that they are the party for the poor.”

On Thursday evening I thought I’d be writing a blog warning Conservatives not to get carried away with the size of our victory. Instead, let us not be too despondent at the result. Yes, the Party made big mistakes but we have the chance to make amends. The Party performed badly, rather than Conservatives being bad. Let’s wear our Conservative hearts on our sleeves. At every opportunity we get lets tell people why we are Conservatives – because we want the best for them and their families.

A Ladder of Opportunity

ianprofileLast month I had the greatest pleasure in attending the inaugural conference of the Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists (CWTU), jointly hosted by DEMOS. The Conference theme was on ‘The Future of Work’ although quite a few different issues were discussed.

As a relatively new Conservative Party member with a predominantly business background, but also a passionate advocate of Trade Unions, I was hoping this event might give me some insight and perhaps even reassurance that there were many other like-minded Conservative supporters in existence. I wasn’t disappointed given the numbers of delegates in attendance.

Often the Conservative Party is seen as anti-union, and indeed even some within the Party may not have Union relations top of the priority list. Both perspectives usually stem from misinformation or unfair media portrayal of unions. Like it or not, and I personally like it, there are two key reasons why we should take our union relations seriously. Firstly, there are approaching seven million members of trades unions in this country, the vast majority having a high propensity to vote, many in marginal seats. To be blunt we cannot afford to marginalise such a core group of voters. Secondly, cordial relations, or dare I say it proactive relations, act as a moral and social compass from a policy perspective.  One example is Workers Rights. Pleasingly the Prime Minister has assured us that our exit from the EU will result in better not fewer rights for workers. Comprehensive rights at work should be valued by Conservatives. If we preach things like self-reliance rather than relying on the state, looking after your family and getting on in life then how are such values contradicted by rights giving secure, stable employment with decent benefits and promotion prospects? They aren’t. They are complimentary not contradictory.

One reform that would greatly benefit Trades Unions in the long term, although would be fiercely resisted by some, is to restrict party political activities. The nature of trades unions is that they will always be political beasts. However persistently we have seen member subscriptions wasted on party political grandstanding or initiatives by General Secretaries on subjects far removed from the core trade union function, that of acting for member’s interests in the workplace. The current election for Unite General Secretary has highlighted this very point. There isn’t a Labour or Conservative way of dealing with health and safety in workplace. Why is the status of Trident of significant interest to a shop worker being bullied at work?

Rights of the self-employed are obviously topical given the issues around National Insurance changes and subsequent postponement of them in the budget.  This is a challenging area and always will be. In my experience the self-employed fall into two camps – those who have made a free choice to become self-employed with all it has to offer and those who have been pushed into it, for a variety of reasons. To my thinking none of these issues will be resolved until we undertake some radical reform of our welfare system. There are so many benefits and entitlements now that are not directly linked to contributions history that it is virtually impossible to define who should receive what and why. Entitlement should be driven by what you have contributed not just by your employment status. Perhaps the Government should consider a levy on companies that exceed a certain threshold of self-employed service contractors they engage, that to all intents and purposes are employees?

The other hot potato of ‘zero hours’ contracts was also discussed at conference. There are strong views on either side. Most of the general arguments are polarised – either employees are being ruthlessly exploited by Fagin style employers or else they are a serene ‘marriage of convenience’ enabling no-strings employment. The truth of course is somewhere in-between. My thinking on this is that too often we focus on dealing with symptoms of issues rather than root causes. The issue is not that employers routinely abuse zero hours contracts but that we must do more to support and incentivise permanent employment. If there were scope we need to look at Employer National Insurance (NI) liability and reducing the general tax burden on employers. Perhaps even a lower rate of Employer NI for permanent staff?

The highlight for me at Conference was the keynote speech by our President, Rob Halfon. A mix of positivity interspersed with realism, his thinking on the challenges facing our party is refreshing and engaging. As a Party we do need to be clearer and talk more loudly and convincingly about our key achievements such as in apprenticeships and reducing unemployment. We need to be clearer on busting myths around public spending eg that we don’t provide enough support to those with disabilities when actually our spending in this country compares very favourably internationally.

We are genuinely erecting not just a ladder of opportunity but also on occasion someone to steady the ladder if needs be.

Despite a smorgasbord of achievement to talk about perhaps there’s a danger we become defined as the ‘not Corbyn’ option and struggle to convey our own positive agenda. The medium term reality is that Corbyn will be gone, replaced by someone more able at the dispatch box, albeit probably not more desirable in policy terms. In my opinion the test we should aspire to apply is if it were a Tony Blair type of figure as Opposition Leader where would that leave us?

Fortunately, we have a Prime Minister in Mrs May who is able to tackle issues head on with a positive policy agenda and deliver a fairer and more prosperous country as a result. Not everyone will agree with everything all the time but leadership is not about popularity. Leadership is about doing the right thing.

The opportunities are ahead of us, as they are for trades unions, it is just a case of recognising and seizing the moment. Judging from the CWTU conference I know that we will play as full and as active a role as possible.

Ian Jones is Honorary Treasurer of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists, an ex-Trade Union representative and an Independent Financial Adviser based in the New Forest. He can be found tweeting @ianajones925

Changing workplace could restore unions’ sense of purpose

syedThings are changing fast in the world of work – in response to advancing technology and social pressures.

Whereas many people of my parents’ generation worked for the same employer in the same sector for 30 or 40 years, this will become increasingly rare.

Even if people remain in the same line of work, it will probably not be for the same company. If it is for the same company, then it may not be under the same arrangement.

Fixed employer-employee relationships will increasingly be replaced by more flexible arrangements. In some firms, workers may well become self-employed contractors instead of salaried staff.

As newer disruptive technology emerges, some sectors may just decline, some may disappear to be replaced by others. Some may adapt…as must we.

As well as changing jobs and roles in the course of our working lives, we can also expect more people to pursue ‘portfolio’ careers. They will have multiple sources of income at the same time, possibly in very different fields and probably into later life.

So we will need to be serious about lifelong learning. We used to think an apprenticeship or degree would equip us with all the training and knowledge we would need to do a certain job for the rest of our working lives. Not any more. Even if we stay in the same job, it’s nature and skill requirements are likely to change.

This is where I believe trade unions and mutual societies still have a major role to play; by doing what they used to do so well, offering their members access to retraining programme, libraries, evening classes, health schemes and mutual savings groups.

Membership of trade unions has declined for many reasons. While some well-paid trade union bosses are seen as wanting to run the country or opposing change, many employees no longer see the relevance of membership.

The changing nature of work offers trade unions a chance to re-focus on the long term needs of their members. As people change jobs or become contractors, unions can advise them how to proceed. They have a history of helping working people and they need to find their true purpose again.

And what does the government need to do? First, government needs to get out of the way and not stand in the way of new, disruptive technologies – either by intent or accident. They must let new industries come forward. They should do what they can to make sure the same encouragement and climate for innovation is available outside London and the South East too.

But then government must think hard about those who lose out from this disruption and from globalisation. We cannot simply leave those who lose their jobs, especially in single-factory towns, to fend for themselves.

We must consider how we can create the space for trade unions, mutual societies and other cooperatives to offer advice and retraining to those who lose their jobs rather than leaving them to a life of benefits and job centre appointments.

Consider the worker who has been laid off by a company but is given a grant or a loan by a trade union to start up a business, along with training and support. Newly empowered entrepreneurs benefiting from this assistance are more likely to be open to retaining membership of a trade union and encouraging their staff to join a union too.

It would be wonderful to see government trade unions and cooperatives work together on lifelong support and training for our workers.

We Conservatives saved this country from the tyranny of the militant trade union leaders in the 1970s and 1980s. An even bigger challenge might be to save trade unions from irrelevance by encouraging them truly to serve their members throughout their ever-changing working lives.

Syed Kamall is Conservative MEP for London – you can find more on his website at syedkamall.co.uk

My view on Grammar Schools – Why they’re essential for Social Justice

grammar school“Reading To Some Purpose” was the unimaginatively titled lesson we had every Wednesday afternoon at my primary school. It wasn’t the most inspiring part of the week but we just got on with it because as a 9 or 10 year old you didn’t question the curriculum a great deal. It was question after question of puzzles, problems and generally working things out intuitively. Only now do I realise this was probably one of the most important hour of the week.

I went to school in Grantham which was one of the few areas in the UK to retain the grammar school system and although 13th January 1981 started as a normal unremarkable day there was a rumour going round that something was afoot. The headmaster walked into our class, we all stood up as was the rule and he announced that we were about to take the eleven plus. After a practice paper we took the real thing and it was all about “reading to some purpose”. I recognised the style and format of the questions as I’d been doing them every Wednesday afternoon for almost a year. These days we’d call that coaching but every primary school did it as preparation for the eleven plus as every child had an opportunity to try for a grammar education. There may have been some parents who paid for extra coaching but, with a year of coaching week after week during school time this would have made, at most, a marginal difference.

Today’s argument that grammar schools only benefit the well off who can afford coaching is defunct in the Prime Minister’s plan for good school places for every child regardless of background. If Free Schools are able to be selective grammar schools the feeder primary schools will almost certainly be offering classes like the ones I had (but perhaps with a catchier title!). If they don’t I would encourage any parent to make sure they did either as part of the curriculum, enrichment or as an after school club.

It is surprising and bordering inconceivable that the most vocal opponents of grammars are the ones who purport to be the most dedicated to social mobility not least Her Majesty’s Opposition. Grammar schools are the very examplar of social mobility and diversity. My grammar school, King’s School in Grantham, boasted illustrious past pupils like Sir Isaac Newton but during my time there I rubbed shoulders with children of service men and women, some from council estates, some from very well heeled areas and, myself, the son of an office clerk and wallpaper factory worker. Instead of dogmatically searching high and low for an excuse to loathe grammar schools a true champion of social justice and cohesion would welcome an opportunity for the brightest to excel in a school so well suited to a child’s talent. Incredibly opening such a school became banned under the Labour Government, a ban which cannot be lifted too soon.

As someone who has attended both grammar and comprehensive schools I can say from personal experience that it is right to look at lifting this ban. The grammar school is where academically minded pupils can excel in academic subjects, be proud about it and not, as I was in both the comprehensives I attended, bullied for it. As a grammar school pupil you are much more likely to be with others who want to learn in a similar way. Like it or not the comprehensive system fails those pupils who want to excel at academic subjects. At comprehensive school the pool of talent is so broad and the desires for children to learn so varied and inconsistent it is difficult to give children of different abilities the differing attention they need to either excel or to get on at all.

There is a problem with the grammar system, though, that exists to this day. The grammar was seen as the school the whole catchment area aspired to. Attending the secondary modern was seen as a failure when it should have been seen as an equal alternative to grammar for vocational as opposed to academic excellence. It is right, therefore, that alongside the move to allow new grammar schools there is just as much energy in raising the profile of vocational education with the announcement of T levels as the vocational equivalent to A levels. Along with Rob Halfon’s relentless drive on apprenticeships, all routes of learning are being promoted and improved like never before.

Quite rightly the Prime Minister is not looking to dogmatically force every town to have a grammar. This is a matter of choice for the parents and children. This is about not preventing the opening of a new grammar if there is a demand for one. This is about allowing choice and not stifling it. Growing up in the Blair era, my children had no chance to aspire to a grammar education but perhaps if I’m blessed with grandchildren they will be among the first to be educated in a brand new modern grammar school. It can’t happen soon enough.

Richard Short is the National Co-ordinator for Conservative Workers & Trade Unionists. This article contains his personal views.


Copeland shows that the Conservatives are the true workers’ party

spencerprofileThe amazing by-election success of Trudy Harrison in Copeland has no end of sub-texts which will be poured over by journalists and political experts alike in the weeks ahead.

Governing parties do not win by-elections in what have been Labour areas – those are the rules. Or rather, it seems, those were the rules.

But rules are there to be broken and you have to ask the question – is the result really so incredible? I would say it is not.

Clearly, there were big local issues at play – the protection of consultant led midwifery services at the West Cumberland Hospital for one which led to one of the most unpleasant and objectionable campaigns Labour has fought with headlines like ‘Babies will die – How can you live with that?’

Another important local concern was about the lack of investment in road infrastructure throughout the region. Many campaigners like myself will have learned the finer details of journey times from Whitehaven to Carlisle – a distance of some 40 miles. As one local resident explained to me at some length, a journey on the A595 can take a ‘very long time’ when you are behind a tractor!

No doubt these campaign issues and many others that came forward during the by-election were of great importance to local residents. But when all is said and done the Copeland result was not determined by these issues.

This by-election came down to just one key issue – jobs.

Which party would support jobs, create jobs, and help to secure even better quality jobs. And perhaps most critically, which party understood that the protection and support of these jobs also necessitated making sure that workers’ rights – in particular hard-earned pension rights – were protected at all costs.

Throughout the campaign Prospect – a politically independent trades union of which I am proud to be a member – fought a high profile and most effective campaign in support of their membership. Many thousands of Prospect members live and work in the constituency, most notably for the nuclear industry based at Sellafield Ltd.

The union actively sought endorsement from all candidates and their parties on two key issues: support for nuclear power production and the proposals to develop a new nuclear power station at Moorside; and support for an agreed outcome to proposed reforms to final salary pension schemes across the nuclear estate.

Anyone who has visited Copeland understands that the nuclear industry and the high-skilled, well0paid jobs the it provides to some 20,000 workers across the region are absolutely vital to local people. In many respects a parallel can be directly drawn between Copeland and Trident jobs at the Faslane naval base on the Clyde.

Jeremy Corbyn’s confused, half-hearted, and frankly unconvincing support for the nuclear industry no doubt resonated badly for him and the Labour Party.

It is important for all Conservatives not to lose sight of the fact that Labour’s woes alone would not have been enough for us to win in a seat like Copeland. Perhaps more strikingly for me is the fact that not only did electors feel that their jobs were safer in our hands, but also that their hard-won employment rights including pensions, would be best protected by voting Conservative.

Early on the Conservative Workers & Trade Unionists signed up to the Prospect campaign listed above, particularly supporting the honouring of promises made to workers in the nuclear industry relating to pension entitlements. We will continue to work closely with all moderate trade union colleagues as we search out a fair and affordable settlement for all parties.

With this great by-election success in Copeland we can quite fairly declare that the Conservatives are now the party of all hard working people in our country today. The true workers party – Tory workers. Labour no longer represent the concerns and aspirations of workers and have been shown to have lost touch with their previously core working-class roots.

We must continue to stand up for the values of all working people, and particularly focus on workers’ rights. Here we must listen readily and openly to our union colleagues – we will not always agree with them, but their values are our shared values.

Our common aspiration is for a country which works for everyone. I have no doubt that if we are able to deliver for the hard working people of Copeland over the years ahead then we will be delivering for all workers across our great country today.

Dr Spencer Pitfield OBE is the Director of CWTU. This article first appeared on ConservativeHome >>

Sajid Javid is talking the talk, now Council’s need to walk the walk

stephencanningThis is one of those articles where I’ll have to declare an interest, multiple interests in fact. The first as a local councillor of six years, who’s seen first-hand how decision makers have ducked big decisions and avoided making the strategic cases necessary to build housing. The second as a young person of 24 who dreams, like so many of my peers, of climbing the first rung on the housing ladder. The third as a Conservative who knows that if we want a society that works, then everyone needs a stake in their community – by renting or owning their own home.

The housing market isn’t just broken, it’s failed. Today Sajid Javid has launched the housing white paper to address this and bring sanity to a system that just doesn’t work. For too long successive Governments have tinkered around the edges of housing, now it’s time for radical overhaul – the clock is ticking to stop a generation losing out.

An important part of this white paper is the removal of the need for every area to have a local plan. This addresses the issue of areas that lack the political appetite to push through needed development, the expertise to ensure it works and the strategic sight to deliver housing, infrastructure and employment in tandem.

Too many local authorities, including in my part of the world, have ducked big decisions and this is a clear challenge from the Government to tell them to up their game. Building the housing our future needs should not be seen as a race to protect as much local land as possible, but as a partnership between multiple local authorities, developers, large employers and the Government. Working together and challenging one another, not adversarial as is traditional but as a partnership, is the way we will unlock the developments we need.

As we look to become more strategic, the Government does however need to look at how County Councils are given a stronger role in housing. At Essex we have already given a Cabinet Member a portfolio responsibility for housing – something the Government should embed into legislation as a statutory responsibility of county-level councils across the country. The days of housing being decided in isolation need to be over, it’s time to think bigger.

Developers can often be a central part of the problem – from land banking, to slow development and not following through on promises. This paper, and the surrounding rhetoric from the Secretary of State, is the strongest and most direct the Government have been with developers. Giving local authorities the power to order developers to finish developers in two years or lose their planning permission is a strong signal that developers who clog the system will not be tolerated.

However these powers do need to be used, and the Government does need to back up those councils who use them. Otherwise this risks being yet more rhetoric on fixing housing whilst people young and old fight to get their own roof.

Not as a councillor, but as a young person who aspires to get his foot on the housing ladder I urge the Government to follow through with its strong rhetoric, my fellow councillors to use their new powers to work together and deliver strategically, and developers to remember that these aren’t just houses, they’re homes.

Stephen Canning is the Deputy Director of CWTU and the Cabinet Member for Innovation at Essex County Council. This piece was originally published on Huffington Post


Conservatives Must Be the Party of Pensions

richardprofileTrade Unions have been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. Militant Union leaders with an agenda other than the representation of their members have done nothing other than fuel calls for new legislation to limit union powers. Meanwhile, outside of the Westminster bubble, there continue to be many more moderate Trade Unions fighting for fair and reasonable settlements with employers.

Whilst campaigning this last weekend for the Copeland by-election it was clear to anyone that would listen that the plight of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) employees is very much a case in point. Not a headline grabber it has to be said like other union disputes – not a militant stand and certainly not a proxy for a fight against the Government.

No, here we have hardworking employees who have paid into a pension scheme with the well-founded expectation of a decent pension when they retire. Sadly, under current proposal from the NDA that is all now under threat.

The Trade Union representing the workforce, Prospect, is supporting these nuclear industry workers and is negotiating on their behalf to maintain hard won pension rights, which have been protected since 1989.

The Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists fully supports the Prospect Union and like them wants to see all pension rights protected as this is absolutely in line with Conservative Party values. Along with our successful policies of inflation busting increases to the national minimum wage and creating the national living wage, making sure there is a decent pension on retirement drives right to the heart of this Government’s agenda of looking after those who work hard and do the right thing.

Indeed, workers who put money away regularly and consistently into their pension scheme to enjoy a comfortable retirement without seeking any extra support from the taxpayer must be lauded for their efforts – not penalised.

This is precisely what Trade Unions are best at and what we support. Where workers have signed up and contributed to a scheme we completely understand their grievance if the scheme is changed to their detriment. On the one hand this exposes the weakness of a final salary scheme where members are beholden to the trustees but it is also right that scheme members can expect those same trustees to administer their pension in the members’ best interests.

In the case of the NDA there has clearly been a breakdown of this trust and representation from a strong but moderate trade union is the best chance to break the impasse, maintaining goodwill and productivity among the workforce.

Yes it is right that Trade Unions must not be a force to disrupt our working lives and must not be allowed to bring national infra-structure to a grinding halt costing the economy millions in the process. But there is a place for Unions to be a force for good, making sure workers get the best from Conservative values.

Richard Short is the National Co-ordinator for Conservative Workers & Trade Unionists. This article contains his personal views and it does not necessarily reflect the views of Conservative Workers & Trade Unionists as an organisation.

Striking a balance: The Conservative Opportunity on Trade Unions

ianprofileAs someone who has been a member of a trade union since starting work it is a movement for which I care deeply. But trade unionism today is under attack – from itself. Public perceptions of trade unions have become driven by negative media coverage, the unwillingness of many unions to recognise the changing nature of the workforce and also the agenda of hard left militant unions such as the RMT and ASLEF.

I have been a member of several unions, some Labour affiliated, some not. I have also acted as a union representative, representing ‘rank and file’ employees in anything from health and safety issues through to pay and disciplinary grievances. I have seen first-hand the value trade unions add. More often than not you are to all intents and purposes negotiating with the employee on behalf of employer. Union representation is not a one way street but a valuable medium for effective employer / employee relationships. I have also acted as a union ‘Learning Rep’ and spent time coaching / mentoring a member to gain further skills or qualifications to improve their prospects – is taking personal responsibility and self- improvement not a core Conservative belief?

As a Conservative I would freely admit that the rhetoric emanating from some unions is not to our favour. Whilst most of the larger unions are still Labour affiliated, a good deal are not. Labour affiliated unions are not reflective of the movement as a whole and are certainly not of the individual membership. Equally, if we are being honest, some Conservatives have fallen into the trap of seeing the union movement through the ‘militant’ lens. As a responsible, mainstream and natural party of Government we must rise above such perceptions.

In order to understand the value unions bring to the Conservative cause, and how we can bring value to their members, we need to understand the consequences of the alternative. I am in favour of moderate and sensible legislative reforms that would bring some proportionality to the right to strike and would assist in alleviating the current intolerable rail strikes. Being blunt however the issues at Southern Railway clearly go far beyond the principle of the right to strike.

However, draconian anti-union measures that have been suggested by some in the media would be counterproductive. At a stroke you make martyrs of the various hard left union ringmasters and with the additional danger of ‘radicalising’ the many union members that may never be card carrying Tory members but are at least currently willing to listen to us. The hard left union barons would love nothing more than to be able to have conclusive ‘evidence’ of the Tory Party being anti-union. We should not give them any ammunition whatsoever.

Electorally trade union members should be fertile ground for us – there are between six and seven million of them. Some will be natural Conservative voters, many won’t be. If we could through effective dialogue only gain half a million of those who don’t currently vote for us, then imagine the difference that would make in marginal seats. There is a great deal of overlap on Theresa May’s intentions around social justice and the aims of many trade unionists. Most union members are not fully engaged with their union as the average turnouts for General Secretary Elections are usually around 10%. This should speak volumes about the potential for us.

Initiatives such as the Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists are crucial in us having the dialogue needed. A dialogue with union members, if not union leaderships, will pay long term dividends. Challenging stereotypes is time well spent. Engagement not hostility, together with candid friendship, will win the day.

Ian Jones is a Regional Co-ordinator with Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists, an ex-Trade Union representative and an Independent Financial Adviser based in the New Forest. He can be found tweeting @ianajones925