I have a dilemma. I believe that our country is at its best when governed by a Conservative administration and I also believe that unions make our society better. But that isn’t my conflict.
For me it’s logical that conservatism and trade unionism are parallel forces for good – helping workers to achieve happiness, stability, and fulfilment. The major clue that having effective unions is important for democracy is that its totalitarian regimes who kill them. Freedom only exists if everyone is able to do what they want to do, and that freedom applies as much to workers who want to join together as it does as it does to entrepreneurs who want to sell things. My trouble is that I want to join my workplace union but that union is Unite, whose leadership have contempt for my political views and want to destroy an important part of who I am.
I should be interested in the Unite leadership election but it’s just an argument between Labour’s factions rather than a debate about how the biggest union in our country can better the lives of workers. While I love a political drama as much as the next nerd, I don’t want to intrude on another party’s grief, nor does the Unite leadership battle give me anything to hope for. The twin forces of Brexit and technology create an uncertain future, but a future that unions can play an important part in shaping. There are so many threats and opportunities, so many decisions that need to be made. What the leadership contenders should be doing is explaining how they can help their 1.42 million members get the best out of the future world of work and how they plan to shape Britain’s new industrial strategy. Instead, they are fixated on playing politics.
If I were to join Unite I would not be the only Conservative in the union. In 2013, when Labour were riding high in the polls, YouGov found that 49% of Unite members said they’d vote Labour, while 23% would vote Conservative. That means this leadership election, as well as Unite’s political affiliation to the Labour party, has little relevance to over half of its membership. At the next election Unite will be backing Labour even though a majority of their members will reject the idea of Prime Minister Corbyn. Unite’s political strategy starts-off saying that: “We fight back for our members regardless of the party in government”, which is great. But it then goes on to say that Unite: “building a broad alliance to beat the Tories”. This goes against the direct wishes of at least a quarter of their membership, and discourages others from joining.
Unions must be political, they must campaign, but they shouldn’t limit what they can do by being affiliated to a particular party. Merging union membership with rigid party allegiance goes against political momentum of our times. The idea that you would join one organisation that purports to represent you on a wide variety of issues does not make sense for Generation X or Millennials. We see politics as being a buffet where we can pick a number of different campaigns to support. In essence, we all individually create our own political parties.
The trade union movement in the UK is slowly dying. Only 25% of workers are now union members, and this number drops to under 14% in the private sector and under 10% of the low-paid. In fact, according to Gavin Kelly, someone who is over 50 and in a high-paid public sector job is 25 times more likely to be a member of a union than someone 30 in a low-paid private sector job. I fear that, as the membership base of trade unions becomes narrower, their ability to play a part in our economy will evaporate.
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This decline is not inevitable. Four fifths of people say that trade unions are essential for protecting workers. If our big trade unions ditched party political affiliation it would send a clear message that they exist for all workers. The future of Unite, and unionism, is more important than party politics. UK PLC needs strong worker voices.
Nick Denys is Head of Policy at the Conservative Workers & Trade Unionists.