Conservatives have worked with unions as much as they have fought them

James Worron is CWTU’s Resident Historian who will be writing regular features looking back at the historic relationship between Conservatives and trade unions.

“We were elected to reform the trade unions. With the support of millions of trade unionists, we have passed two major acts of Parliament,” so stated Margaret Thatcher in her 1982 Party Conference speech. This sums up the Conservative party’s mixed relationship with trade unions: sympathetic to the membership but wary of the leadership and the sheer power of these institutions.

This complex relationship has been framed by some enduring conflicts. Conservatives have never liked the closed shop – a clear assault on workers’ freedom, and of course have opposed the political levy, which funds the Labour party. However, co-operation has also been a feature of the complex three-way relationship between Conservatives, trade unions and business.

Many workers themselves were also historically ambivalent about trade unions, and it is worth remembering that at any one time most workers were not members. Historically, unions wielded a lot of power on the factory shop floor, at times with their own agenda only party aligned with workers’ interests. In the graphic words of a respondent to one 1950s study, trade unions “piss in the same pot as management.” Working class Conservatives voters have been amongst the most sceptical about trade unions, thinking they would “keep a man back.”

Near the start of the industrial revolution trade unions were effectively banned under the 1799/1800 Combination Acts, although these were rarely enforced as government wanted to leave that to employers and not interfere. Not for the last time Conservatives were unsure how the triangular relationship between government, business and the unions should work.

The governments of the Earl of Derby and Disraeli in the late nineteenth century were pro-worker and this was reflected in union policy.  The Molestation of Workmen Act 1859 allowed peaceful picketing, and the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875, allowed workers to pursue legitimate trade disputes and not liable to be sued if their actions were lawful. Disraeli’s aim was that these measures should “settle the long and vexatious dispute between capital and labour.” Randolph Churchill warned Conservatives a few years later not to be too sympathetic to capital.

It was not just about “sides” though. Conservatives were working out how the three-way business/union/government relationship would work. In the late 19th century there was talk of enforcing compulsory arbitration, but eventually a voluntary approach was enshrined in the 1896 Conciliation (Trade Disputes) Act.

In the 20th century the idea of partnership of between industry and trade unions began to emerge, and this idea was pushed by all party leaders for the first 40 years of the century. During this period there was the great conflict of the General Strike, which led to the 1927 Trade Union Act, banning general strikes and limiting the closed shop. Nevertheless Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin did not wish to introduce too harsh an act. In the 1930s more radical ideas began to emerge, with Harold MacMillan promoting the idea that the government should itself be part of the partnership.

This idea of partnership reached its peak during the Second World War. Trade unions were at the centre of Britains’s war effort, placed on key committees and in industrial councils. Churchill strongly supported this process, and after the war declared “We owe an immense debt of gratitude to the trade unions, and never can this country forget how they stood by and helped”.  This alone should remind Conservatives of trade unions’ positive potential.

After the war, thrown into Opposition, the Conservatives published the Industrial Charter. This declared that the party was in favour of trade unions, and would “humanise” capitalism. This led to the Conservatives most pro-union period in government after 1951. There were regular meetings at No 10 and anti-union legislation was explicitly rejected. In retrospect, this period seems a prelude industrial anarchy of the 1970s, and even by the early 60s the voluntary approach was proving a bad way to control inflation. The government only had exhortation to encourage wage restraint. Twenty years later Margaret Thatcher took a more robust approach.

Where next then? Trade union power is clearly restrained, and the closed shop is gone for good. Can a new relationship be built in a modern setting? The unions’ political affiliation remains the biggest obstacle. The case for breaking this link is strong, but Conservatives need to be realistic about the scale of this challenge.  Contrary to myth the unions have not been captured by Labour. The trade unions created the Labour party as their Parliamentary vehicle. The cost of this has been making relationships with other parties more difficult and Labour and the unions may well have a better future apart, but this would be a huge and historic sundering.

James is the CWTU Historian and a member of the National Organising Committee. You can follow him on Twitter: @Jamesworron.