Protecting the union
While Labour has been slow to work through its response to the Big Society, the Conservative Party has yet to apply its logic to the economy. Big Society enthusiasts have championed voluntary groups, open government and public service reform, but have had less to say about what the idea means for our lives as consumers, workers or shareholders. In a Demos pamphlet published today, Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow, begins to fill in the blanks. In Stop the Union Bashing, he puts forward case for his party building bridges with unions.
Halfon’s argument is that unions are bastions of capitalism – a viewpoint that may win him some surprising allies. Many of those on the Left of the movement itself have always understood their task as to civilise capitalism, rather than replace it. The pamphlet takes the argument a stage further, noting that unions ought to be recognised as the quintessential Big Society organisations. They are, after all, just the kind of independent, intermediate institutions that Conservatives have valued since Edmund Burke and before. Their members, he points out, are eight times more likely to involve themselves in social action and community-led services.
Halfon is right that the union tradition shares a key Big Society insight – that legislation can only take you so far. Better jobs, with improved working conditions, also need conversations between employees and employers in workplaces across the country. At their best unions play a vital mediating role in this, giving people a voice to speak for themselves in their workplace. This more than anything, should clinch the argument for unions as potential allies, not enemies, of the Big Society idea.