Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Tories' Trade Union Turn

As audacious tank-parking goes, the Conservatives' announcement that they're (re)launching their own trade union movement is right up there. It has certainly raised eyebrows across the political spectrum. There will be activists across the spectrum who looked up and saw question marks materialise above their heads. Haven't the Tories proven themselves consistently anti-trade union? Aren't they about to saddle the labour movement with the most restrictive strike laws of any advanced Western nation? And do they not fulminate at the thought of workers banding together to improve their lot in the workplace? Isn't it, at best, just a stunt and, at worse, an exercise to burn off that excess hedge fund cash?

According to Robert Halfon, self-professed "proud trade unionist" and one of the few relatively reasonable Tories who take their One Nation nonsense seriously, his 'Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists' movement will “provide a voice for Conservative-minded trade unionists and moderate trade unionists”. He goes on:
“We are recreating the Conservative trade union workers’ movement. There will be a new website and people will be able to join. There will be a voice for moderate trade unionists who feel they may have sympathy with the Conservatives or even just feel that they’re not being represented by militant trade union leaders.”
This is part and parcel of the Tories' blue collar turn. While Labour is the party of the bloated social security budget, it is the Conservatives who are standing up for working people. We may have guffawed when they started dubbing themselves 'the workers' party' and 'Britain's trade union', but it is a very conscious and serious repositioning by them. They know very well that the party is hated and are facing continued long-term decline (though this might not affect their ability to win again, at least in the medium term). They are also aware that what hurts them the most is the popular perception of being in the pocket of finance and big business. This doesn't handicap them in the way it could thanks to the lack of interest the print and broadcast media have in such things. It's the way of the world, innit?. And so, we have the Tory trade union movement. The rebranding of the minimum wage and its large increase - even though many who get by with the support of tax credits stand to lose. The specious hype of Osborne's "northern powerhouse", and the Tories' decision to hold their conference ooop north on a regular basis.

On the rebranding, can it work? Well, to a certain extent, it already has. They were able to sneak an overall majority in May for a number of reasons, but key was the stirring up fear and resentment. Part of this preyed on a negative affirmation of class identities. The 'I-have-to-go-to-work-so-everyone-else-should' syndrome that is oft-mobilised in support of benefit-bashing, and has proved an especially potent political device. Expect to see it deployed more regularly now the new Labour leadership has (rightly) set its face against the demonisation of social security recipients.

Therefore I am not dismissive of the possible efficacy Halfon's initiative can have for the Tories. I also think, in a way, that it's a positive development.

No, your eyes do not deceive you. Firstly, what Halfon is doing is setting up a parallel organisation of trade unionists. He's not foolish enough to be setting up a rival TUC for Tory-minded trade union members only. Were that the case it would be doomed to fail. Secondly, readers would do well to remember that while class can be and is (for some) fodder for an identity, it is everywhere and always a structural location. Not in the sense of the Registrar General's income/occupation groups, nor the cringe worthy simplisms of vulgar Marxists and post-Marxists, but the obvious fact that the majority in this country have to sell their labour power - whatever that may entail - in return for a wage or salary. That the labour movement exists and articulates a set of values of a broad type is a product of two centuries worth of experience, of organising wage/salary earners against employers. It follows that anyone identifying working people with a set of values and politics have it the wrong way round. A Tory worker isn't "scum" or a "sell-out", nor are they a pod person programmed by the right wing media. They merely have views that makes sense from the point of view of their individual life experience. They are - and there are many millions of them - at odds with the conclusions drawn, generally speaking, by the labour movement as a collective. Yet workers of hand and/or by brain they are, and as such they have interests like every other worker. Indeed some, like Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit, and our friend Robert Halfon, groped towards this realisation and joined the labour movement as active Tories and trade unionists.

The Tories are not exactly overflowing with members - just see the miserably low numbers participating in their mayoral selection - but it will attract a few odds and sods, and should the labour movement revive more are bound to wash up on its shores. It will flush out come quiet Tories too. Nevertheless, some on the left are bound to identify it as a Trojan horse within our movement, a (I don't think terribly effective) means of disseminating alien values among trade unionists. As if we're not already subjected to them every time we turn the telly or computer on, or open a paper or magazine. However, social processes always modify and change those caught up in them. It would be foolish to suggest that a Tory workers' association is going to introduce the blue party to the virtues of solidarity and collectivism, but it opens up another avenue of contradiction. Were Halfon's band to become a big deal within the party - improbable, but not impossible - it might under certain circumstances stay the Tories' hand on future attacks on organised labour and/or rights at work. The contradictory location could also, on occasion, put Tory trade unionists on the spot. Activists may have to choose between trade union activity and Tory affiliation, especially when the party is colliding with sections of workers. And that, ultimately, shows up the irreconcilable character of our interests versus theirs.

For our own reasons, we should welcome the prospect of the Tories attaching a labour movement assemblage to them, however detached and problematic that organisation might be.


Igor Belanov said...

It does seem somewhat bizarre. Outside of the 'unions' that are basically just professional associations, I can't think of any field where there would be any potential for a Tory trade union. Working-class Tories tend to be almost violently opposed to unions as a principle, and the apathetic are hardly more likely to join a Tory union than a Labour-orientated one. The only space I could see for it would be in respect of racism and nationalism, 'British Jobs for British Workers', but I think even the Tories would be too cautious to go in for open Powellism these days.

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