Last 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