A high-wage, pro-labour vision could bring the unions on side
Britain is beset with strikes and industrial action. Nadhim Zahawi has been fired as Conservative Party chairman over his tax affairs. And our Prime Minister, as seen in conversation with Piers Morgan last night, is unable to counter suggestions that he is ‘stinking rich’. In light of this increasingly apparent divide between a plutocratic ruling class and a forsaken public sector, it is worth asking what happened to pro-worker conservatism, only recently cast as the new governing philosophy of the resurgent Tories.
With the 80-seat parliamentary majority won from former Labour constituencies in the North and the Midlands — the so-called ‘Red Wall’ — only a few years ago, the Tories looked set to upend the country’s long-standing electoral geography. Back then, they were in position to forge a new cross-class coalition between the middle classes of the south east and the working classes of the Red Wall.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Now, the party appears to be mired in tax dodging, while Tory MPs are lining up to announce they will not be standing at the next election. Turning the screws on the labour unions by further restricting the right to strike is an indication not only of our political elite’s instinctive authoritarianism, but also of their inability to resolve or mediate social conflict. This conflict will only grow in the face of rising inflation, rising interest rates and economic stagnation.
UnHerd’s own poll shows Red Wall voters turning against Brexit, the issue for which they famously ‘lent’ their votes to the Tories in the general election of 2019. Boris Johnson, who campaigned on promises of ‘levelling up’ and then notoriously opted for a trip to Kyiv over a party meeting in Doncaster last year, has now fully abandoned the Red Wall, preferring to lobby for arms shipments to Ukraine rather than invest in the North.
Despite the Tories’ troubles, there is at least one obvious route out of this political farrago, and through which they might once again stake their claim to a pro-worker conservatism that could shore up a new electoral coalition for the 21st century. Instead of seeking to browbeat the unions with yet more restrictions on civil liberties and freedom of association, why not aim to cut a deal and divide them?
The Tories could bring union members on side by offering enhanced pay deals to the more working-class unions — bus and railway workers, postal staff, firefighters, nurses and paramedics — and divide them from the Zoom workers in the academics’ and teachers’ unions. This latter class could be left to film their picket line dances on their own, no longer able to LARP as proletarians having lost the opportunity to rub shoulders on protests with bus and railway workers.
In any case, given that the leaders of the academics and teachers’ unions are concerned more with decolonising the curriculum than with their members’ pay, their antics would doubtless still provide the Tories with plenty of culture war fodder for Daily Mail headlines about the ‘loony Left’. Thus, the Conservatives could still pursue a culture war while doing grown-up politics.
It’s true that it’s difficult to imagine Rishi Sunak welcoming Mick Lynch to No. 10 for a new era of ‘beer and sandwiches’ with the Prime Minister, but he could at least let Kemi Badenoch do it, as she sees the political advantage in appealing to union members. Even if such a strategy would be too late now to win the Tories the next election, it could at least lay the groundwork for taking power back from Labour in the not so distant future with a high-wage, pro-worker vision.
So why do the Tories not take this obvious route? One look into Sunak’s earnest, wide-eyed stare is enough to explain it. The Tories are led by Thatcherite nerds and blowhards who totally lack their idol’s political nous and ideological conviction. They certainly appreciate making money — as Zahawi shows — but they don’t understand that politics means winning people over. That includes your opponents, Rishi.