In the last post, Brian Hughes quite rightly upbraids me for my decadent ennui. There are important matters afoot. I want to talk about Labour and the unions, and how today’s Tory attack on the Labour-Union link is fundamentally dishonest – and worse, a political mistake.
A few years back the Tory Party was trying to make cooing eyes at the Unions. As one Iain Dale (currently running a one man anti-Union campaign on his blog) said in the Daily Telegraph in Sept 2008:
“Six months ago, the Conservative leader appointed a special envoy to the trade union movement, former Labour MEP Richard Balfe, who defected to the Tories in 2002. Since then, he has been sidling up to various union leaders, initially to break the ice and then to initiate informal policy discussions…
…There is no silver bullet, no single headline policy with which the Conservatives can lure union members. Instead, party insiders point to David Cameron’s “General Wellbeing” speech, which laid out an approach to policy which trade unionists could identify with.”
Back then, in the dim and distant days of 16 months ago, the Tories had to be nice to the unions because they needed to show they were in touch with the aspirational working class.
How times change! Now the unions are once again the Tory parties big bad, with their evil militant Air stewardesses threatening to bring Britain to its knees. The aspirational working class must despise the unions that were so important to them last year.
So Michael Gove is despatched to make a wince inducingly childish speech about an apparent 70s revanchist movement that he has identified, and to create a bogey man called Zinoviev Whelan. Still, I suppose ol’ Michael’s only doing it because he’s paid to entertain.
Now, to be fair, both the left and right of the Labour party sometimes like to play into the image of Gordon as stalwart ally of Trade Unionism, and he is indeed a friend to the unions, but a much more critical one than this latest nonsense suggests. The attempt to paint Gordon Brown as a latter-day place of strife era Callaghan are woefully misguided.
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.
Which is why Cameron put so much effort into oiling up to the Unions a few years back.
You know, when he was really popular.
Hmm. Maybe he should go back to that strategy?
Addendum: Anyone who wants to know what’s really happening, not what Michael Gove imagines is happening, should pay attention to Patrick Wintour and Events Dear Boy, Events, who have written more coherent explanations of what is happening at Unite than any others I’ve seen or heard.
Events, in particular, does so from a perspective that is critical of the overall direction of Unite, but who understands how unions function. As a result, his explanation makes sense, when one considers the political interests of all concerns, while the overarching current Sun/Tory narrative of a PM in the pocket of a Union he’s publicly condemning is utterly incoherent.
In part, this nonsensical caricature comes about because Tories tend to make the same mistake when talking about the Unions that Socialists do when talking about big corporations – they assume they’re all the same, all working in the same direction, all have the same interests, and are united, unriven by debate and dispute and monolithic in approach.
Anyone who’s heard a Union staffer talk about the membership recruiting policy of another union, or the democratic structures of even another branch of the same union, would know how wrong this is, just as anyone who’s heard one businessman talk about the moral standards and working conditions at another company would have to revise their opinions about the uniformity of the interests and values of late era capitalism.