The cross-party think tank, Demos, organised a conference for the Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists (CWTU) on March 11 in London.
Speakers included Prospect general secretary, Mike Clancy and Robert Halfon MP, minister for skills and apprenticeships, who is a Prospect member.
CWTU director Spencer Pitfield outlined his hopes for the conference: to reach out beyond the Conservative party with the message that trade unions are fundamentally good for employers and core to our society; that fulfilling work is a key to well-being and that work does not necessarily mean a big salary.
The CWTU event was a new one for me. Conservative trade unionists talking about the major issues facing the UK:
- the balance between work and leisure
- the impact of automation and new technology on work and workers
- how to boost economic productivity while assuring well-being and the future balance between the traditional employed and the growing army of self employed and
- the impact on fiscal policy and
- the need to combat unethical work.
Robert Halfon is an interesting character. Well-known as a campaigning MP, I’ve never come across a Conservative MP with such an empathy and understanding of trade unions or a belief in the positive contribution they can make to civic society and the wider economy.
Halfon said he was always worried when the Conservative party appeared to be complacent about the opposition.
“The left has an incredibly powerful message. They want to help the underdog and the poor. That’s why the Labour Party has 600,000 members, they have the infrastructure to service them. Many of them are good people. The Tories don’t have these things. We need to be seen as the party of the NHS not BHS.”
He argued that the Conservative party must create a similar narrative and a framework to deliver policies.
Conservative trade unionists must find the vision to be a modern workers’ trade union and substance around key issues like, skills, wages, rights, welfare and services.
Mike Clancy asked the audience: What should public policy do to stimulate trade unions? He also asked those from government what they wanted their legacy to be.
“Pluralism may be uncomfortable for some people in the trade union movement, but we have a duty to engage and negotiate with politicians from all parties for the benefit of our members.
“If the Conservative Party is serious about reflecting and listening to the views of working people, it needs to develop policies that give them a voice at work.
“We have skills and productivity challenges in our economy. We need a productive, globally successful capitalism that benefits society as a whole – not just a financial and hereditary elite.”
Clancy emphasised that Prospect’s political independence enabled it to act as a lever to help balance a power relationship between corporate power and the interests of employees.
“We need an effective industrial strategy with unions working alongside businesses and government to create high-quality, high-skilled, high-wage jobs in key sectors like R&D, defence, energy and communications – the areas where Prospect members have expertise. It needs vision and unions can help with that.
“Conservative trade union members should be working with us to engage and influence Conservative ministers and Conservative ministers should understand that ‘One Nation’ means a place for everyone at the table,” he concluded.
Two interesting panel debates drilled down into some of the big themes the conference explored: education and training, self-employment and choice, and whether funding of political parties and other organisations needed a total rethink.
After the event, I was chatting to Tony Lennon, former BECTU president and now a full-time official with Prospect.
He pointed out an outside broadcasting unit parked up that was likely to include BECTU members. And sure enough, we bumped into people from that unit having lunch outside the Westminster Arms.
It was enlightening because the issues they talked about were some of the issues touched on earlier at the conference:
- changes to national insurance contributions for the self employed
- the balance between them and employees as far as tax and benefits are concerned
- extra admin burdens, like digital tax regimes, that impact on their status.