UK Politics

Should the Tories be trying to woo the trade unionists?

Residents in Harlow town centre
Image caption The debate about union influence feels very distant from the concerns of shoppers in Harlow

Could the Conservatives be doing themselves more harm than good with the frequency and volume of their attacks on Labour's connections to the trade unions?

A new Tory group, called Renewal, has been launched with the aim of broadening the appeal of the Conservative Party and shaking off the perception that it is just for the rich.

I am listening to that most traditional of busker's instruments, the accordion, playing in one of the original New Towns.

Thirty miles from central London, Harlow - now a marginal seat - sprung up after World War II.

Home to the country's first residential tower block, now listed, and the first pedestrian precinct, in a town centre now looking tired.

Cost of living

One talking point dominates here.

"The cost of living, petrol, everything really, it's just sky high. Every week you go shopping, prices go up, it's not one or two pence, it's 10 or 20 pence," says Maggie, who works in a bakery.

Image caption Mr Halfon has a radical answer to improving Tory links with the unions

Melanie, who works in a local shop, agrees. "Cost of living, wages, earnings, petrol, all that sort of stuff, food, everything's so expensive, and people are not earning."

So how does the prime minister's recent rhetoric about the trade unions and Labour go down? "They own you lock, stock and block vote" was one of many jibes at Ed Miliband over Labour's relationship with the Unite union in recent weeks.

It is an argument, like many from Westminster, that sounds very distant and not immediately relevant to many.

There is a scepticism about the value of strikes and militancy, but a recognition of the role unions can play in the workplace.

Free membership

Trade union membership has shrivelled since the late 1970s, but still stands at around seven million, dwarfing the appeal of the main political parties at Westminster, who struggle to muster half a million paid up members between them.

"The majority of trade unions are not affiliated to the Labour Party, a third of trade union members vote Conservative, we should be involved," Harlow's MP, the Conservative Robert Halfon tells me.

"In fact I'd go much further. I say to the many millions of the Conservative-minded trade union members, I'd offer them free membership of the Conservative Party."

He is concerned that floating voters in marginal seats might miss the fact that David Cameron is criticising union leaders, and conclude he is having a pop at ordinary trade union members.

Mr Halfon says the new Renewal group of Conservatives, with its desire to see the Tories become what it calls "the Workers' Party" and shake off the perception that it is just for the rich, is his spiritual home.

"If you look at the battleground seats at the next election, also those seats where the Conservatives need to go from third to second, there is a larger than average proportion of public sector workers and trade unionists in a lot of those seats," the group's founder, activist and former parliamentary candidate David Skelton, tells the BBC.

A Conservative Party spokesman says the party are "on the side" of hard-working people including millions of union members.

And yet the memory of the miners' strike and the legacy of deindustrialisation are long lasting, for some a perpetual noose around the neck of the Conservative brand.

But it has not always been like this.

'Song for Maggie'

Image caption Margaret Thatcher managed to tap into concerns about trade union power and economic woes in 1979

"In the 1979 election there was a rally held by trade unionists for a Tory victory, where they got around 2,000 people into London in support of the Conservative Party, and Mrs Thatcher attended," Professor Tim Bale from Queen Mary, University of London, says.

"And that probably did help, in some small material way, to give people the impression, during the campaign at least, that Conservatives weren't deaf to the concerns of ordinary people."

Dig into the archive of this event, and it is quite striking. The singers, and yes, Equity members, Vince Hill and Lulu, sang to Mrs Thatcher. "Here's to you Maggie!" went the song.

It is what Mr Halfon calls white van Conservatism. Some others call it blue collar Conservatism. Its aim, the MP argues, should be nothing less than a wholesale change in the party's image.

"If modernisation of the Conservative Party is to mean anything, it is that we have to be the party of the poor as much as the Labour Party has presented itself as," he believes.

"I obviously disagree with the policies that the Labour Party has, but nevertheless, their whole being, their whole moral mission is to help the underdog, and we have to be that party."

Or, to be put it bluntly, it's the cost of living, stupid.

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