Will Cameron's Tories work with the unions?

Reporter’s Guide in association with Unite the Union

David Cameron says the Tory Party must re-position itself at the centre of British politics. It is the only way, he argues, to make the party electable after three losses to Labour.

Old Tories, he says, were too ‘big business’orientated, too dismissive of ‘society”, too willing to assist corporate interests irrespective of whether those interests were responsible, good for consumers, or contributed to the common good.

There were mutterings early last year that Mr Cameron was even prepared to do business, or at the very least open new lines of communication with, those forces of left-wing outer darkness – the unions.

Announcing a new relationship might – journalists including myself speculated – be just the kind of ‘shock therapy’the Tory leader has so enjoyed administering to his party. He fuelled this thinking by saying he would invite Polly Toynbee, doyenne of the left-wing intelligentsia, to this year’s Tory conference. The invitation has yet to drop through her letter box.

Against this background, Unite – the flash new super union – seems ripe for Tory overtures. Its members are heavily represented in the ‘C’social class that Mr Cameron needs so badly to lure back to the fold. Forged in a marriage between the private sector union Amicus and the Transport and General Workers union, its membership is far from ‘cloth cap”.

Unite has the same proportion of Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail readers as the electorate at large. Its members live in semi-detached homes. Many are in middle managerial posts. They have as many conservatories, credit cards, cars, and qualifications as most people. They are, in short, the British electorate.

In some respects the Tories have moved in the unions’ direction. On the NHS, Mr Cameron has pledged to end Labour’s endless structural revolution. He has ditched plans to subsidise those who opt for private treatment and he wants to keep the service predominantly public. On pensions, there have been positive noises too, with Tory support in the House of Lords for compensation for those who have lost their pension funds.

Yet the unions remain unconvinced. And suspicion of Cameronism is as intense as towards any Tory leader since Thatcher. The publication in August by right-wing former cabinet minister John Redwood of his ideas for economic competitiveness has been viewed by the unions as proof that the ‘union bashing’torch burns as brightly as ever at Tory HQ.

The TUC sees the document as evidence of a Tory agenda to weaken union power. It believes Mr Redwood wants to scrap EU protection and working time regulations for British workers, to opt-out of the Social Chapter and to review the Health and Safety at Work Act. The TUC believes the Redwood agenda could not be achieved without leaving the EU altogether. David Cameron, union leaders suspect, is on board with much of this thinking.

There is another area of common ground. Many unions, like the Tories, want a referendum on the EU reform treaty because they want to kill it off. But the Tories’ reasons for doing so are very different from those of the pro-referendum unions.

The Tories believe the treaty gives Europe too much power. The unions, on the other hand, object to the way Tony Blair opted out of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which would have offered more protection to UK workers. The unions and the Conservatives share a common purpose – but very different motives.

As he ponders a snap election, Gordon Brown will not want to overplay his friendship with the unions or give in to too many demands. But there is no danger of the ‘barons’transferring their affections to the other man courting middle Britain.

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