Conservative Trade Unionists President Rob Halfon speaks to our eBulletin editor, Matt Smith.
Rob Halfon is the Member of Parliament for Harlow, a constituency in Essex with a large blue-collar workforce. He was returned there in 2015 with an increased majority, after first winning election to the House of Commons in 2010. He is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party and President of Conservative Trade Unionists, and previously he was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. He is a member of the non-Labour affiliated Prospect trade union and author of Demos paper: ‘Stop the Union Bashing: Why Conservatives should embrace the Trade Union Movement.’
Halfon is a very busy Conservative in government, segueing between Parliament, Conservative Campaign Headquarters and the Cabinet Office.
This is his first interview as President of Conservative Trade Unionists. We sit at a table in Conservative Campaign Head Quarters, adjacent to an image of Sir Winston Churchill, who said: ‘We are for the Ladder: Let all try their best to climb.’
I begin by asking why he thinks the Conservative Party rather than Labour is the true Workers’ Party.
Rob Halfon (RH): We are the party that created over two million jobs in the last parliament. We are going to create another two million more jobs by the end of this Parliament. We are the Party that has created over two million apprenticeships. We are going to create another three million apprenticeships this Parliament.
Matt Smith (MS): Do we perceive the outline of a new Tory-radicalism in government?
RH: We are the party that has introduced the National Living Wage. It is the kind of ground-breaking policy that I would imagine very few people would have thought the Conservatives would introduce. It will mean that by 2020, many low-paid workers will be £4,700 better off. We are also the party of lower taxes for lower earners – with the richest paying a greater share of tax than they were in 2010.
We have raised the personal income tax threshold and will continue to do so, in order that no one on the minimum wage will have to pay any income tax at all.
We are the party of the NHS. We are investing an extra £10 billion. We are the party of helping parents. Particularly those on low incomes in work with children. We have introduced free childcare.
“We are the party of the ladder. If you are in poverty, we will get you out of poverty and into work”
MS: Social justice underpins your conservatism. Providing routes out of poverty and hardship are as important as inspiring aspiration.
RH: We are the party of the ladder. If you are in poverty, we will help get you out of poverty and in to work. We will help you get the skills, training and apprenticeships that you need.
If you are a business, we will cut your taxes so that you can employ more people. We will deregulate so that your business thrives.
If you are hardworking and wanting to buy your own home, we will make that possible either through Right to Buy or Help to Buy.
We are the true Workers’ Party – the real party of labour.
These are real, substantive policies. Not just words. We are the true ‘Workers’ Party’. In fact as George Osborne has said, we are the real ‘party of labour’. Whereas the modern Labour party are the party of dependency, high taxes, high borrowing and high spending.
MS: What will the ‘Workers’ Party’ message and the Conservative Trade Unionists achieve for the Conservative Party
RH: This is incredibly important because a third of trade unionists vote Conservative. In my own trade union, Prospect, which is not affiliated to the Labour Party, 25% of members vote Conservative. In some of the other unions, up to 75% of their members vote Conservative. We need to make a distinction between militant trade union leaders and moderate union members.
MS: You believe trade unions are a force for good in society.
RH: They negotiate on behalf of workers for better conditions and decent wages. I know this myself from having worked on the ground with trade unions in Harlow in cases where people had been treated badly by big corporates. So they are a positive force.
They also offer members consumerist services, which are a major reason why people join. They provide important membership services, like health insurance. They provide access to loans at lower interest rates, accountancy services and retail offerings. So if you go on to any trade union websites you will find a host of services that are – if you like – very capitalist in nature. And that is why people join.
I think the Conservative Trade Union movement is incredibly important. It did exist. It fell a little bit by the wayside in the 1980s. It was kept alive as Conservatives at Work by a number of people in the North of England. We have re-established it with a team of people who are now running it on a day-to-day basis.
Our aim is that for any Conservative worker, any Conservative trade unionist to have a voice inside the Conservative Party. A voice that will represent workers and address their issues. And we are getting emails and messages from all over the country.
“Social Justice to me is about helping, literally being the party of the ladder”
MS: What role does Conservative Trade Unionists have in the Conservative view of social justice?
RH: Social Justice to me is about helping, literally being the party of the ladder. It’s about ensuring that the poorest can get out of poverty and that they are given the opportunities of the best education, the best healthcare and the best work opportunities. That to me is what social justice is about. People on low incomes who are doing the right thing, are the people that we should be doing everything to help.
We are now the party of the national living wage – a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
MS: What policy implemented since 2010 most signifies the Conservative Party’s credentials as the Workers’ Party?
RH: The national living wage. If you remember it was not so long ago in 1997 that Conservatives opposed the minimum wage policy. Fortunately that has been reversed.
We are now the party of the national living wage. People will be roughly £4,700 a year better off by 2020. That is an incredible policy for the Conservatives. It is one of the defining Conservative policies of our generation. What it says is that if you want to work, we will help you get in to work and that work pays. That you get a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. It says to people we don’t just want to be a society of dependency and hand-outs, we are a society that supports those who want to work.
For the Conservative Party to introduce that is a huge thing. It is one of the biggest Conservative policies of the last twenty years.
“Trade unions are not just for militants”
MS: What should this Conservative Government do moving forwards for trade unionists specifically?
RH: The first thing is to show moderate trade unionists, of which there are many, that there is a voice. That trade unions are not just for militants. There are many unions that are not affiliated to the Labour Party. If more people joined these unions, stand in elections, then all opinions, all workers would be better represented.
It is very easy to complain that trade unions are dominated by one political force or another if we do not get involved ourselves.
The Life Chances speech – “a signpost on social justice”
MS: You were delighted by the Prime Minister’s recent ‘Life Chances’ speech.
RH: I think that was one of the most important speeches the Prime Minister has ever given. It followed the Party Conference speech and it was a loadstar for us, a signpost on social justice because it makes the Conservative case for from the cradle to the grave. But not through dependency and socialism, through real Conservative measures. By ensuring that early years have a good education, by ensuring people get work, by ensuring that the poorest people are looked after.
Any Conservative interested in social justice should really read that speech. I keep it now in my case and take it everywhere because I think it is an important signpost of what we need to do.
“We are the party of the builders”
MS: Was the Chancellor of the Exchequer right in his 2015 Conference speech to declare ‘we are the builders’ and ‘we are the only true party of labour’?
RH: It was an incredible speech. He stated “we are the party of the builders” and by that he meant that we need to be the party of housing, and affordable low cost housing in particular. He also said we need more houses across the country because the more houses that are built the less houses will cost.
In fact whenever we have been the party of housing – and I am thinking back to Macmillan in the Sixties, and Thatcher’s Right to Buy – we have always benefited. It is again perhaps one of the biggest policies of this government.
“Everyone deserves some Conservative representation”
MS: What is the geography of the Workers’ Party?
RH: We are very much a One Nation movement but I would also like us to be active in the areas where there is the least Conservative representation. That will obviously include parts of our inner cities, Northern England, as well as Scotland and Wales.
We have to show that everyone across our country deserves Conservative representation, even if there is only one Conservative councillor in their area. We have to give a Conservative voice to the many Conservative voters that are scattered across our country.
MS: What is your vision for the Conservative Trade Unionists and where do you want the CTU to be in two years’ time?
RH: The first step is to ensure we get a good membership. That we have events and that we act as a voice for Conservative-minded trade unionists and workers in the Party.
The second is, in the long term, to see the CTU to develop as offering similar services to a trade union. So we act as an alternative. This will of course be very challenging and require a lot of work. But we are not just another pressure group or think-tank. It is a real voice, a real body for Conservative-minded trade unionists. We are lucky to have people like you Matt and Dr Spencer Pitfield and others helping.
That is the long-term aim: to offer services, retail offerings, support and to have branches up and down the country. In the way that it existed when Conservative trade union in the 1970s and 1980s flourished. It should be remembered that under Mrs Thatcher, there were about 170 if not more Conservative trade union branches all over the country.
“People are yearning for moderate, sensible, common sense policies”
MS: Does the current leadership of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn allow the CTU and the ‘Workers’ Party’ to step into a space vacated by Labour?
RH: People are yearning for moderate, sensible, common sense policies. There are many moderate working people who are worried about the extreme direction of the Labour Party, who doubt whether it can really represent them, or fear they will put taxes up.
So actually I think it is an incredible opportunity, almost a once in a lifetime opportunity, to win over moderate working people. People who may not instinctively be ardent Conservatives like you or me, but may be willing to listen to what we have to offer. And that is why the work of the Prime Minister and Chancellor, in talking about working people and developing key policies like the living wage, lower tax for lower earners, the NHS, the thirty hours a week free childcare, is incredibly important.
The work of the CTU is the body that can express this as a voice for moderate working people.
“Whenever we have been the Party of working people we have benefitted”
MS: What Conservative statesmen and stateswomen do you most admire and why?
RH: That is a good question. I don’t think I can answer it because there are so many that I admire. If you look at the Conservative Party throughout history, whenever we have been the Party of workers, we have benefitted electorally. Think of Disraeli. In fact the Earl of Derby legislated to allow trade unionism. That is not often known. Macmillan’s commitment to building houses. Margaret Thatcher’s policy to allow people to buy their own council houses, ensuring workers could become shareholders and cutting taxes for working people. John Major, a working class Conservative Prime Minister and getting the highest number of votes since the War.
Whenever we have been the Party of working people we have benefited. So I wouldn’t say that there is only one leader. But I would say that there are things that leaders have done right through our history that I support and admire.