Alex Massie

The Tories & Middle England: United Against the Unions

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The admirable Hopi Sen thinks the Tories will blunder if they continue their Unite-bashing. Childish, playground stuff he calls it:

The idea that Gordon Brown is in the pocket of the Unions because errr, he keeps going around condemning them, and (in the case of the RMT) designs business models that make them so angry they disaffilliate from the Labour party is silly on its face – and therein lies the danger for the Tories.

This false perception leads the Tories to overplay their hand. If  you put up posters condemning the Government for being in the pocket of the Unions,  that just gives ministers the chance to make you look silly by proving they’re not – showing they’re on the side of travellers, not stuck in some bizarro-70s world of the Tories imagining. 

Watch out for Adonis, Mandelson and yes, Balls, Whelan et al to do just that.

Of course, the other reason the anti-Union assault is a political mistake is because the biggest union stronghold is public sector workers, most of whom are women, and who will be unnerved by any implied Tory attack on their rights at work, representation and conditions.

But the RMT might, at least by the standards of our time, be considered Hard Left. That a militant - and in the view of most of the public, barmy - union doesn't like Labour doesn't mean much. What it does do, however, is further prejudice the public against the unions in general.

Perhaps that's unfair. I'm not instinctively hostile to unions* and certainly not as contemptuous of them as many on the right. (Then again I've been a member, though an unreliable one, of a union in the past.) But public tolerance for union strikes is, I suspect, vastly lower than it was 25 or 40 years ago. People under the age of 30 must look at them and wonder what on earth is going on. You mean this used to happen all the time? No post, no railways, no planes, no nothing?

And the public, in any case, can appreciate that what Unite are doing in their British Airways* strike is laying down a marker for the next government. Watch out sonny, there's a lot more of this coming down the pipe. Unison will, one assumes, be thinking along similar lines. There'll be plenty of public sector strikes as the fiscal squeeze begins.

So, sure, it's not entirely true to say that Gordon Brown is held captive by the unions but Labour's inability to broaden its donor base has left them more dependent upon (perfectly legitimate!) union finance than they might wish were matters more happily arranged. Should Gordon lead the next government, however, he'll find himself in conflict with the unions too since their primary responsibility is to the movement and their definition of their members' interests, not to the Labour party. The party is a means to that end, not necessarily the end itself.

As for union-bashing being a vote-loser? Well, maybe. Sure, some public-sector workers may have reason to fear a Tory government. But having a pop at the unions does other useful things: it cheers up the Tory base no end without alienating Middle England at all. That's a win-win entirely and there are few issues upon which their respective interests or prejudices overlap so neatly as this.

Secondly, there's much more hostility towards many public sector workers than many of said workers or political activists may appreciate. In a recession, there's considerable resentment of their (perceived anyway) feather-bedded status and generous pensions. Not all of these things can endure forever and the public knows this. Things are going to have to change and, since the Tories are the change party, this implicitly reinforces their message.

Sure, while a good 'un, this card like all others can be overplayed. But it still needs to be played.

*I'm happy to make a general, catch-all exception for the teaching unions.

**I suspect BA management is pretty hopeless and could probbly have handled the situation better. But the public sees a well-paid workforce protesting against changes designed to keep the company alive and, more to the point, buggering up things for people  - that is, customers - who have nothing to do with the dispute at all. There's a selfishness there that will not play well.


Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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