‘Compassionate Conservatism’ – finally it has crashed and burned

Steve Turner

As the Con-Dem coalition scrambles to cover up its failing economic policy it has reverted to type. Attempts to chop workplace rights and support for union representatives reveal that the Tories still fear nothing more vehemently than organised labour.

It comes as no surprise that a new assault on unions comes just weeks after the biggest ever strike by public sector workers in UK. The message seems to be don’t talk with them, eliminate them.

If Arthur Conan Doyle were alive today, he would be forced to doff his cap at Tory determination to depict a “demon” in the average workplace rep.  Their wild imaginings of a craven creature preventing “enterprise” from flourishing simply by following procedure and using the photocopier go well beyond anything Mssrs Cumberbatch and Freeman can conjour up on a Sunday night.

But ridiculous as these frothing attacks are, they also remind us of the dangerous ideology of Cameron’s Conservative party.  It matters nothing to them that the government’s own research, supported by no less than the CBI, shows that union reps actually save the nation and employers £1.1 billion per year – that’s ten times more than Jesse Norman MP is seeking to save by his ten minute rule bill clampdown on public sector reps.

Jesse Norman himself is a curious character.  A former investment banker at Barclays,the Eton educated son of a business magnate was given a safe parliamentary haven in 2010 when his industry’s standing was at its lowest public ebb. A proponent of ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ when elected MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire in 2010, his compassion seems rather one-sided.

On Monday Norman relied on fellow travellers, the Telegraph, to call for an end to what he asserts is the taxpayer funding of trade unions ahead of his proposed 10 minute rule bill due to be heard in parliament after PMQs.

Norman trotted out one isolated case – that of Jane Pilgrim – to condemn all trade union reps saying they work for trade unions, not the school, hospital or local authority.

That was error number one, because Norman is conveniently basing his argument on blinkered and selective evidence citing one case and ignoring the thousands of reps that day in day out work to make a difference to their colleagues and their company.

Error number two was Norman’s reliance on a recent report from the Taxpayers’ Alliance (Democracy winces) claiming, surprise, surprise, that unions are bad for business; that’s simply not true.  As stated, BiS itself has produced figures showing the contrary.

And error number three was Norman’s sheer disdain for unions and workers themselves as he cited ‘supposed arguments’ defending the work that reps do. Norman’s response?: “These arguments are of no value at all.”

Well, 6.7 million people in the UK belong to a trade union, and of those some 200,000 are actively engaged in representing their fellow workers.  Whatever Norman may assert, this work is very much valued, and not just by workers.

Government estimates show that the benefits that flow to the UK economy include savings of up to £1.1 billion every year (‘Reps in Action’ published by BIS [then the DTI], the TUC and the CBI). The report shows:

  • Union learning reps providing training and education bring real productivity gains valued at up to £1 billion for companies across the country
  • Union reps help companies and organisations save up to £143 million on recruitment costs by improving workplace relations and supporting employee retention
  • Health and safety reps are crucial in reducing workplace injuries and save up to £371 million annually and up to another £200 million is saved by preventing work-related illnesses
  • Reps also help reduce dismissals saving companies up to £19 million a year while stopping employment tribunals helps save up to £43 million a year

At a time of recession and when cash is tight, is this not exactly the kind of support business – including the cash-strapped public sector trying to swallow 28% cuts – needs, particularly those businesses not in any shape to provide the HR support today’s employment environment requires?

It is these businesses that turn to unions to solve problems before they emerge, or it may be workers in those businesses who need a rep simply because there is nobody else to turn to.

So why is Norman (mis)using parliamentary time (not to mention taxpayers’ money) to call for a restriction on union rights in the public sector? Business is not demanding these restrictions.  It has to be because the Conservative Party, for all its husky drives and hoody hugging, has a deep-rooted and ideological loathing of organised labour. This is one Thatcherite legacy that they cannot – will not – shake off.

If that were not the case, then rational argument would win the day. Over in Germany, companies with more than 200 employees are entitled to a full time rep, and as employee numbers rise extra full timers can be appointed. Germany also has worker representation on supervisory boards helping decide policy, and pay, for the company.

Germany, with its focus on workplace rights, support, investment in education and, training is also one of the most productive economies in the world and leads Europe in industrial and manufacturing production and innovation.  It also has the only falling unemployment rate in the EU.  Not exactly laid low by its progressive approach to trade unions, then.

Perhaps Cameron and his government probably don’t want reminding about Germany. After all before Norman, the poster boy for the government’s anti-union tirade was none other than the MP for Cannock Chase, Aiden Burley.

Burley was thrust into the limelight after pictures emerged of him attending a Nazi-themed stag party in France.

He was eventually sacked from his Cameron-given job as a parliamentary aide to transport secretary Justine Greening at the dog end of last year after a series of increasingly damning revelations, story-changes, and heavy criticism from Jewish organisations. Burley is currently being investigated, along with other party guests, by the French police.

Burley and Norman are pushing a right-wing anti-union agenda. It is anti-democratic and it is a smokescreen for the government’s failing economic programme.

For Britain to compete in the modern globalised economy it needs a motivated, educated and committed workforce; from Jaguar to the NHS, trade unions are a key in delivering that aim. Attempts to water down or erase workplace rights are yet one more blinkered and self-defeating ‘plan’ from this wretched coalition.

Steve Turner is the Director of Executive Policy for Unite

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