Two Tory MPs have recently made striking confessions. Eric Ollerenshaw has said the Conservatives are losing the north. In his Lancashire circles people see David Cameron or even George Osborne and Nick Clegg who have northern seats as posh rich southern boys with no empathy for England north of the M25.
Robert Halfon says that Tories are seen as anti-union. He argues this is unfair but agrees that the Conservatives should try and shed their anti-worker image. These are two thoughtful MPs making interesting points. But the evidence is against them.
Osborne’s budget announcement that he will tear up the terms and conditions painfully negotiated by unions so that public servants in the north have their pay cut will not win friends in the north.
Last week Tory MPs giggled as a Liberal Democrat minister boasted in a statutory instrument committee he was going to strengthen hire and fire bosses by removing the right of employees to go to an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal claims.
This covers the first year of employment precisely when employees are most vulnerable. The government also wants to axe lay union nominees on industrial tribunals even though this is opposed by the CBI.
The Yorkshire Post, once a loyal Tory mouthpiece, now is obliged to report regional truths like the widening poverty gap in the north. Last Saturday’s paper highlighted the fears of elderly working class citizens now facing massive cuts in social care.
Tory MPs, led by the Cannock MP, Aidan Burley, have made several attempts in the Commons to dismiss all trade union volunteers who help represent workers in difficulty with managers. In Germany this is known as the ‘Herr im Haus’ – master in his own house – approach to industrial relations. Mr Burley has an interest in rightwing German politics and hankers for an age when employers could not be challenged.
This desire to promote the bully boss is central to the new Tory intake of MPs egged on by Orange Book Liberal MPs. The One Nation or social partnership Toryism of the post-1945 settlement is not coming back to life.
The Tories have cut funding to the International Labour Organisation, the well-meaning plodding outfit where governments, employers and unions agree minimum protection for worker rights globally.
In the Commons Tory MPs curl their lips and sneer whenever unions are mentioned. They hoot with derision if anyone defends trade union work.
For every 13 workers who lose their jobs in the public sector as a result of cuts just one private sector job is created. The intelligent centrist Tory MP, Jo Johnson, argued in the Financial Times last week that more sole traders should be encouraged to take on an employee. But the way to do that, he argued, was to weaken still further employee rights. Yet the evidence is that those economies with good employment stories – the Nordic nations, Netherlands or Germany – have better protection for employees and a cooperative approach to trade unions.
Conservatives may think they are simply sustaining the Thatcher heritage. She certainly disposed of absurd union anomalies like strikes without ballots or the closed shop but she worked with European-style social partnership union leaders from the engineers and electricians. She met regularly with the fiercely Labour Yorkshire local government leader of Rotherham Sir Jack Layden and promoted northern Tories like Rhodes Boyson and Sir Marcus Fox.
Today, however, the north and trade unions are foreign to modern Conservatives. UKIP and the BNP are more in touch with much former Tory working-class voters. Thoughtful Tory MPs are now waking up the problem. But they have no solution.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham, a former Europe minister and international trade union officials. Follow him @denismacshane
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