This meeting of the Forum set out to examine some aspects of the Conservative Party's post war relationships with the trade unions. The first paper by Dr Pete Dorey, Reader in Politics at Cardiff University, was entitled 'the Conservative Party and the Trade Unions 1945/1964 and 1975/1990 - From Conciliation to Confrontation'.
The second paper focussing on the contemporary Conservative Party/Trade Unions relationship, was given by Richard Balfe, the Conservative Party's 'envoy to the trade unions'.
Pete Dorey thanked the Trade Union Forum for the invitation. He briefly recalled his long history of publishing work on the relationship between the Conservative Party and the trade unions.
For Pete, the first period under review, 1945-1961, was 'the heyday of voluntarism'. The Conservatives in the wake of the 1945 election defeat were largely as certain as the unions themselves that the state should not get involved in industrial relations, leaving the whole subject to collective bargaining between the unions and employers.
There were a number of reasons for this:
This caused particular controversy within the Conservative Party over a couple of specific issues:
Conservatives, in fact, encouraged an increase in the number of Conservative trade unionists, with an organisation dedicated to them (named Conservative Trade Unionists). The idea was to counter the influence of the left within the union movement.
Conservative trade unionists could, it was felt, engage in debates, counter the 'propaganda of the left' and prove that it was possible to be a good trade unionist and a Conservative. Conservative candidates were fielded in trade union elections. This engagement could be used to call for better behaviour by management and employees alike. Taking workers into the confidence of management would, it was believed, lead to fewer strikes. As such, in 1951-60, the Conservatives continued to support and emphasise free collective bargaining, in line with voluntarist principles that the state should refrain from further intervention.
However, this post-war 'settlement' was disrupted after 1961 by a growing concern over rising inflation and the apparent attraction of incomes policy as a response from government. Even so, if unions were to feel part of the discussion at the highest level and accept their role in planning incomes policy, the government was more than willing to see unions involved in other manifestations of 'liberal corporatism' - with employers, unions and government being intended to act as social partners. This approach would inspire the foundation of the National Economic Development Council in 1962, bringing these partners together in a tripartite forum. In principle, they would jointly determine investment levels, profit targets, affordable wage increases and so on.
In 1964, however, there was a sense among Conservatives that unions were not behaving responsibly, particularly in terms of the rising number of unofficial strikes in key parts of the economy. It was felt that they were contributing to levels of unemployment and defending obsolete industrial practices, among other things. Attention shifted in the party to putting this right through legal change. As a consequence, and as a first step, the Conservative manifesto in 1964 pledged a Royal Commission on the Trade Unions. As it turned out, however, Labour narrowly won the election, but accepted much of the previous government's analysis, and set up a Royal Commission chaired by Lord Donovan.
Conservative policy in this period - when 'conciliation' was apparently the preferred method of dealing with trade unions - was also heavily influenced by the views of 'One Nation' Tories who believed that it was incumbent on them to elevate the condition of the working class. Senior members of post-war Conservative governments like Eden, MacMillan, Butler, Macleod and Monckton were clear that part of their purpose was to respect working-class institutions like trade unions and so they put industrial peace, stability and harmony at a premium.
Conservative policy in this later period was deeply influenced by the aftermath of the party's experience during the Heath government.
Ted Heath's government introduced the Industrial Relations Act in 1971, attempting to reform industrial relations in a 'big bang'. But his government experienced two major miners' strikes in 1972 and 1974, and the imprisonment of striking dockworkers by the National Industrial Relations Court (set up by the Act) was a public relations disaster. The 1974 strike effectively precipitated the February 1974 election, bringing down the Heath government.
The result was that the Conservative Party had a real desire to atone for this experience; to come to a reckoning. This was only reinforced by the experience of the Labour governments of 1974-9 and the Winter of Discontent in 1978-9. This latter experience provided a green light to act. The public were weary of trade union militancy and discontent; and as the unions involved were public sector unions, the effect on the public was disproportionately large.
By 1979, there was a real sense within the Conservative Party that the time had come to deal with this. John Gorst, who was involved with both the Freedom Association and the Middle-Class Association, represented some of the wider sentiment - claiming that trade unions, and (strikingly) the working classes generally, were become too 'uppity'. In 1977, a Gallup opinion poll had suggested that the public judged Jack Jones - General Secretary of the TGWU - to be the most powerful man in Britain.
Even though the government of Margaret Thatcher was certain that they had public opinion behind them to deal with the unions, they went about changing the law in an incremental way to avoid the all-or-nothing confrontation with the unions implied by the 1971 Industrial Relations Act.
The five key Acts of Parliament between 1980 and 1990 started with restricting the number of pickets and banning the secondary picketing that had been such a feature of the 1974 miners' and the 1977 Grunwick disputes. Attacks were made on the closed shop, requiring its endorsement by the workers concerned, and the institution as a whole was eventually rendered completely illegal in 1990. Other key developments in 1982 and 1984 made all strikes require ballots before they were legal, and all union leadership elections and the continuation of union political funds needed the endorsement of secret postal ballots. Above all, breaches of any of these laws were to be proceeded by action in the civil courts implying huge damages against trade unions as bodies rather than penal sanctions against individual trade unionists.
The government's approach in non-legislative matters also changed: in a volte-face from previous commitments to state neutrality in industrial relations, Thatcher's administration chose to stand firm against strikes. In the 1981 steel and civil servants' strikes and, above all, the 1984-5 miners' strike, the government sat out industrial action without making any concessions. The aim, in part, was to restore the authority of the state.
The government also made a point of appointing tough managers, with a remit to take on the unions. Ian MacGregor remains the most famous example, having been appointed to manage British Steel. The aim was to rationalise, slim down and take on the steel unions. He then went on, of course, to the National Coal Board. Other examples include Sir John (later Lord) King, appointed to British Airways to prepare it for privatisation.
Government also made a point of supporting managers more generally against trade unions. Rupert Murdoch's transfer of News International's print operations from Fleet Street to Wapping, and the resulting strike, was a case in point. Government rhetoric cast employers as the 'good guys', modernising business in the face of union dinosaurs holding back a dynamic future.
Thatcher also consciously acted to dismantle corporatism. In the government's view of affairs, unions were not supposed to have a say - over government, employers or anything much else in terms of public policy. The NEDC was downgraded; in 1992, it was abolished. More generally, tripartite forums were attacked and/or dismantled.
The direction of policy was also aided by privatisation and high unemployment. Unions were significantly stronger in the nationalised industries and the public sector; the rolling back of the state from large sections of the economy reduced the power of strikes and weakened the role of unions. High unemployment, furthermore, changed the balance of power between employers and unions - making it easy to, effectively, threaten employees and thus reduce trade union power.
All this was accompanied by a return to a focus on free bargaining: but with an important twist. By the late 1980s and 1990s, a shift took place towards individualised pay bargaining. Why, the reasoning went, should pay levels be collectively determined? Better, in government eyes, for it to be left to employers and to the market. This served to cut out the need for trade unions in another context.
The legal underpinning of these economic attacks on unions was vital. First of all, the approach in 1979-90 was incremental. Five Acts of Parliament were passed in eleven years: and there was no equivalent to Heath's Industrial Relations Act. This made it harder to mobilise opinion against changes: individual Acts seemed moderate and, indeed, reasonable to many trade unionists.
Second, offences in respect of the new trade union legislation were civil, not criminal. This had a crucial impact: the new laws made no martyrs. The Industrial Relations Act, by contrast, most emphatically had made martyrs (imprisoned striking dockworkers). Furthermore, it meant that - in respect of legal process, at least - the matter remained between employers, employees and unions. In contrast to the criminal law, the state was kept out. It also meant that the penalties were financial - fines, and in the event of unions refusing to pay them, the sequestration of union funds. This approach hit unions in their pockets, where it hurt most.
Third, much trade union reform could be - and was - presented as a programme of democratising unions. The narrative was one of 'handing unions back to their members', especially in cases of reforms involving ballots - requiring them for strikes and for the election of union leaders. It is also important to note that legislation was frequently presented as 'employment legislation' rather than 'trade union legislation' per se: the idea was that weaker trade unions would, by promoting growth, lead to more chances for employment.
A number of other factors contributed to a shift from conciliation to confrontation in government policy. Prominent among these was a different breed of Conservative politicians from the one which dominated the party in the 1950s and 1960s. These were not, as a rule, One Nation Tories. Rather than coming from aristocratic backgrounds, they often tended to be self-made men and women. They had acquired their wealth through work: and they fiercely resented attempts by people to better themselves through industrial muscle.
This has been characterised as a 'lower middle-class revolt'. Sir Julian Critchley, a prominent One Nation Tory, spoke for much of the previous generation of Conservatives when he said that Margaret Thatcher had risen in the world and the Conservative party had gone down - and, on another occasion, that the party of estate owners had become the party of estate agents!
Business, as well as the centre-right of politics, was also moving towards a more confrontational stance. This was represented by the shift in influence from the Confederation of British Industry to the Institute of Directors. The IoD was much more combative and much more anti-trade union, and its voice was increasingly heard in this period.
Changes in employment patterns, as well as unemployment itself, played a major role in undermining the role of trade unions - to the point where there were 6.7 million members of trade unions in 2009, as opposed to 13.5 million in 1979. Employment shifted away from industry and manufacturing, as well as the public sector - all of which were areas where unions were strong. New jobs were more likely to be private sector, services based rather than manufacturing and were often part time, short-term contracts or based on agency labour - all factors tending to lower union membership. The shift made unions seem like much more of a minority interest.
Pete Dorey's paper was well received by members of the Forum. Several points were made under the Chatham House rule that Dr Dorey responded to. One Forum member emphasised Monckton's sense of his role as being to hold the ring and not to climb into it. He thought that the key to the shift in Conservative thinking was the experience of the Industrial Relations Act. He also mentioned as a key point the notion that Conservatives lost faith in employers' association spokespeople like the Engineering Employers' Federation and increasingly went directly to individual employers themselves. He also highlighted a shift towards seeing employers as having more of a direct welfare function of their own - with implications for the role of unions.
Another speaker began by highlighting the centrality of the Conservatives' experience of the war and, in particular, the experience of the war as a 'workers' war'. Churchill once said that the TUC ought to be on the victory parade!
He went on to draw a distinction between Conservative attitudes towards the working classes and Conservative attitudes towards trade unions. Attempts to curb trade union power were emphatically not seen as 'anti-working class' by the Conservatives, but as liberating them from collectivism. In this connection, it is worth emphasising that between a third and a half of manual workers voted Conservative from 1884 onwards. Many were trade unionists.
The same speaker also emphasised the role of what sociologists describe as the C2s - skilled workers. 1979 saw the biggest ever swing of skilled manual workers towards the Conservatives. Margaret Thatcher took this seriously, as her focus on polling of C2s showed. Furthermore, the Conservatives could argue that they presented a strong alternative for these voters through their focus on free bargaining on wages; lower taxes; council house sales; the selling of shares in privatised industries; and so on. In 1979, DEs (unskilled manual workers) also swung towards the Tories. An attack on trade unions was made as part of a perception that the unions were failing to reflect the views of their members. Conservative moderation had a history dating from well before 'One Nation Conservatism'. In the nineteenth century, there was 'Tory Democracy'. It was also notable that the Conservatives made no effort to reflect the group to which they were appealing in terms of the backgrounds of their candidates.
It is arguable that many 'one nation Conservatives' despised members of Conservative Trade Unionists (CTU). Tom Hamm was their chair - and represented a much harder-right, 'UKIP-esque' version of Conservatism than the one nation Tories; the two groups often found each other distinctly uncongenial. CTU often combined a number of labourist attitudes with intense patriotism, strong hostility to immigration and so on.
Another speaker was particularly interested in Dr Dorey's analysis of Conservatives and voluntarism. He asked why there was Conservative Party support for voluntarism - whether it stemmed from their 1945 defeat, from a genuine degree of social democratic consensus or a lack of stomach among the party's patrician wing for a fight with the unions? In connection with the last point, he mentioned communist influence in the unions during this period, and how the 'conciliation' approach may have been designed to isolate the CP in the workplace.
In response, Dr Dorey said that the legacy of World War II, the shock of the 1945 defeat and the patrician backgrounds of leading Conservatives were all part of the story:
The resulting irony was that, everywhere else, the Conservatives of the post-war consensus were very interventionist: but not in this field. In this field, they reversed their usual position.
Pete Dorey next responded to being asked about the extent to which frustrated Conservative members were appeased by attacks on the closed shop. He referred to the Conservatives' 1964 pledge of a Royal Commission on the Trade Unions. He also noted that the effective incorporation of trade unions into the workings of state policy could actually make industrial relations worse rather than better - creating a gulf between trade union leaders and shop stewards and drawing unions away from their members, as well as fuelling accusations of 'selling out'.
He also mentioned the relatively right-wing leadership of the union movement at the time. There was also a substantial Conservative vote from trade unionists - and a sense that, irrespective of the rights and wrongs, attacks on trade unions would be seen as anti-working class. Would non-trade unionists be next? The skilled working class constituency could not be ignored.
Richard Balfe started with a disclaimer, highlighting that his views were his own and could not be taken to come from David Cameron. He is Cameron's envoy to the trade union movement, not an envoy from Cameron. Forum attendees were warned not to expect any state secrets to emerge!
Moving on to the substance of his talk, Richard Balfe explained how he ended up in the Conservatives after such a long career in the Labour Party. He served in the European Parliament from 1979 to 2004. Life as an MEP took a toll on his family life and he'd promised to end his tenure after 2004. He thus ended up following Sam Silkin's dictum: 'promise your retirement and they'll leave you alone!'
However, he did want to serve after the 1999-2004 Parliament. He moved to Cambridge in 1996, maintained relations with Tony Blair and duly ended up high on the list for the European elections in 1999. But when he stood (again) to be one of the Quaestors of the European Parliament, trouble arose. The Quaestors act, in effect, as shop stewards for MEPs, dealing with matters such as office provision, pensions, ability to hire people temporarily and so on. He ran as an independent, to the embarrassment of the Socialist Group leader in the European Parliament - who asked Blair to intervene. Blair insisted that he either stand down or be expelled. In the end, it was the latter.
Being an MEP without a political group was a difficult thing to accomplish effectively, so he wanted an alternative political home. He'd never trusted 'the Liberals', and as a result joined the Conservatives in March 2002. Both the Lib Dems and the Tories had approached him! As he had always seen himself as being to the right on economics and to the left on civil liberties, he believed the Tories to be a potential match: especially at a time when Labour's civil liberties record left a great deal to be desired. He also argued that, as Tony Blair's autobiography shows, when Blair would occasionally have to accommodate trade union views, the trade unionists always spotted that his heart was not in it.
After a couple of years as a Conservative MEP, Richard Balfe retired in 2004. In late 2007, he was rung up by the Leader of the Opposition's Office and asked to meet with Cameron. Cameron said that he knew the Conservatives were out of touch with the trade unions - and that the unions were an important part of the state, which the Conservatives needed to understand if they were to win elections. He went away to consider the offer and negotiated a number of key points, over about three months:
Until the election, Balfe's role was mainly to ensure that the Shadow Cabinet knew as many trade unionists as possible.
Attitudes varied between unions - some refused to meet (though regional approaches might be made in those cases) and others were erratic in their attitudes: but nonetheless, there was a fair degree of success in this. The aim - to get trade unionists in front of Shadow Cabinet members - was, to a substantial extent, achieved. One direct example of how useful these type of contacts proved in the early days of the coalition was when Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove already knew many of the education union leaders personally.
A key challenge was not only political, but cultural. Shadow Cabinet figures and trade unionists simply did not know each other - and were not necessarily sure how to behave with each other. A key part of the idea was to break down some of those cultural barriers.
Initially, counts were kept of the total number of meetings - but in the end, there were too many. They served to create a dialogue between Conservatives and trade unionists. Conservatives were never going to be trade unionists' first choice as a political Party: they were not trying to convert people to Conservatism, but to explain their aims and motivations.
Since the election, Richard Balfe has mainly focussed on reflecting trade union sentiment to Cameron - whether from unions' journals, contacts in the TUC or elsewhere. The role thus involves explaining trade unions to the Conservative Parliamentary Party. As with trade unionists, reactions can vary, but a great many are keen to engage. In order to clarify matters after the election the role was retitled as Conservative Party Envoy to the Trade Union and Cooperative Movement.
Trade unions tended to be practical about the venture from an early stage. It was very clear, after all, that Labour were likely to be out of government after the next election: and it made practical sense to have contacts with their likely successors. There was also a sense among many Conservatives that, while 'paternalist' would be an old word now, a return to a constructive relationship with the unions would be a good thing. Dialogue with trade union leaders has occurred at senior levels with the Conservative Party as a result.
Richard Balfe thought that there is a settled consensus on industrial relations in Britain, particularly as far as the legal position goes. When Tony Blair, as Labour's Shadow Employment Secretary, declined to oppose Thatcher's final trade union legislation on the closed shop, he did a great deal to help create it. And in government, New Labour proved distinctly reluctant to move very far from that consensus - as their slow and unenthusiastic approach to EU social legislation showed.
Labour's approach to the unions, as Mandelson said to Balfe in the 1980s, is strongly influenced by the view that 'they have nowhere else to go'. Partly as a result of this, there is no longer a battle over industrial relations, except at the margins, between the parties. This cuts both ways: there were, to his knowledge, no plans in the Cameron legislation for further trade union legislation - he felt that the government saw no need. In practical terms, the Conservatives realise that if they are to achieve public service reform, it will be much easier to do that with trade union co-operation. Oliver Letwin is clear, too, that attacking unions is often not sensible as union members now are volunteers and join unions as a 'life style choice' - and so attacking unions could in some circumstances be seen as attacking people - particularly as skilled public servants.
Richard Balfe also quoted John Monks: 'The Labour Party are our friends and often disappoint us. The Conservative Party are our enemies and often pleasantly surprise us.' Following from this, he claimed that British politics was becoming Americanised: that Labour was no closer to the trade unions' values than the Democrats were to their US equivalents. As such Labour was their first, but not their only choice.
He concluded by referring to pivotal moments in the Conservatives' attitudes. In 1922, Lord Curzon lost out to Stanley Baldwin for the premiership. From Churchill in the 1940s through the end of Heath's tenure in 1974, official Conservative attitudes towards the unions took on a much more co-operative and conciliatory nature. From then, for every successive leader through to Michael Howard, a much harder line predominated.
Cameron, he argued, was a twist back to the previous tradition - and would leave a settled succession by the time he left office. Waldron Smithers and his ilk were, and would remain, back in their box for the foreseeable future.
Several issues were raised by different speakers:
Given the decline of trade union membership - and the increasing concentration of membership in the public sector - why should David Cameron care about their role? And in any event, given the scale of the cuts, what could he offer them?
Richard Balfe, in response, returned to Cameron's description of the trade unions as 'an important part of the state'. The public sector point cut both ways: how could a government radically reform public services with an alienated workforce? As such, there was a real potential offer from the Conservatives, based on restoring pride in work - getting Whitehall off professionals' backs and treating them as partners. In this connection, especially in a world where union membership is more and more a lifestyle choice and unions have to fight to secure their membership, he highlighted a change in the character of union members.
Turning to the cuts, he argued that they could be overstated - pointing out that, in nominal terms, spending would continue to rise: was retrenchment the same thing as 'cuts'? He also cited George Osborne's statement that Labour's cuts would only have been £2 billion less than the Coalition's: how big, really, was the difference? But he also highlighted an ideological distinction: Conservatives did, ultimately, believe in a smaller state. Labour painted the divide as being one of 'investment vs. cuts'. However, he said, Labour were rejected by the British people at the last election.
Another speaker was of the view that the need for frontline service cuts was denied by the Conservatives too and another asked about the contents of the gap between trade unionists and Conservatives.
Richard Balfe replied by highlighting the difference in cultural environments: the difference between (say) a hunt ball and a Trade Union Branch meeting was vast, but that was the gap between some Conservatives and some trade unionists. And of course, the cultural divide raised similar questions for Conservatives. He also pointed out, though, that there were fewer and fewer Labour MPs from a trade union background: so a cultural gulf was growing there, too.
As such, the aim of his work was to foster greater understanding - a sense that, for Conservatives, trade unionists did have some common ground with them; and a sense that, for trade unionists, the (then) Shadow Cabinet did want greater consensus, which was why they were bothering to make contact.
Another issue raised was whether there had been any dialogue facilitated by Richard with industrial relations academics, but he replied that there had not: he only carried out his task one day a week and was pressed for time!
Other Forum members thought this point was an important one. Politicians had moved well away from research on industrial relations matters - and it would be good if research into matters such as performance-related pay was re-instituted. David Blunkett, when he was Education Secretary, fiercely resisted the idea that academic evidence might play a role in looking at the question of PRP for teachers. Research in general had got a poor response from Conservatives too - this was not really a political issue.
Another speaker returned to the idea that the Conservatives did not understand the trade unions enough, which he found striking. He mentioned John Bowis and the Conservative Trade Unionists organisation - which had been very well attended. He asked when the CTU was closed down and whether any organisational link was still extant.
Richard Balfe responded that Conservatives at Work were now the main organ for these purposes, playing a distinct role from his. It was not on the same scale as the former CTU, largely because party organisations tended to wither in government - an intrinsic danger for parties.
The same speaker raised the possibility that CTU initially served its purpose and subsequently served none! Following on, though, he mentioned that he was very encouraged to hear that no further legislation on strikes was planned.
Richard Balfe, in responding, reiterated that he was not aware of any such plans and mentioned a number of legal and practical obstacles to any such move. He also described himself as an 'emphatic dove' in terms of Conservative attitudes to trade unions.
In returning to the question of dialogue between senior Conservatives and unions and whether it represented a return to Monckton et al or more a selling opportunity for the former - and if so, what there was for them to sell - Richard Balfe responded that there were several key points: explaining economic policy and getting views; dealing with many of the practical questions about reducing the size of the workforce and avoiding compulsory redundancies where possible; and looking at the broader range of policy where appropriate.
Still some scepticism was expressed about the nature of this dialogue, with one participant saying it felt like it was overwhelmingly for Conservative Party benefit. He asked whether there was any mention of the social partnership approach and pointed out that engagement with public sector unions was very hard to avoid when the Government were, in effect, the employers. He also questioned whether high-level contacts were necessarily reflective of union sentiment more broadly. He also expressed concern about mood music from the Prime Minister about trade union legislation, contrary to Richard Balfe's comments. In a climate of deregulation, trade unions were some of the most regulated organisations in the UK. Let us have the deregulation agenda extended to them! Finally, he made the argument that much of the Government's programme represented an attack on the working class, not just trade unions - pointing to relaxing employment law in terms of unfair dismissal as an example.
One last speaker asked about the role of the Liberal Democrats.
Richard Balfe replied that his role was exclusive to the Conservatives - but he had seen no evidence of an effort by the Liberal Democrats as a party. That said, Vince Cable was doing his best as Business Secretary.
More broadly, he highlighted that the point of his initiative was not to convert trade unions but to make sure that Conservatives worked better with them when in government: and again, he reiterated the view that unions were an important part of the state. Of course, the Conservatives did hope to gain from the process: but this was a broader undertaking than that, with benefits for both sides. Voluntarism was very much the order of the day, which provided some degree of common ground.
The difference between Labour and the Conservatives was that Labour believed in a collective approach to problems and the Conservatives believed in an individual one, other things being equal. This split tends to be the dividing line between centre-left and centre-right throughout Europe.
James Moher and Alastair Reid
Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!
We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.
With long-established offices in King's College London and the University of Cambridge, H&P is an expanding Partnership currently supported by 6 Higher Education Institutes: King’s College London, University of Bristol, University of Cambridge, The University of Edinburgh, University of Leeds, and The University of Sheffield.
We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.