There is growing evidence via polling data that UKIP is gaining working class support particularly in areas previously regarded as “safe” for Labour. Some of these people are traditional Labour voters who have become disenchanted with a party whose middle class, metropolitan leadership cadre appears increasingly disconnected from the everyday issues confronting ordinary folk. Even more significantly UKIP appears to have energised a substantial number of citizens who have, in recent times, ignored the ballot box either because they mistrust all politicians or, until now, have had no interest in politics.
I fancy we would see this good news for UKIP and a blow for the established parties and their media cheerleaders. For years they have relied on a comfort blanket which assured them that our party was a one hit wonder, populated almost entirely by harrumphing retired colonels and their wives and a motley collection of elderly Tories at odds with the modern world. The fact that UKIP is putting down roots outside this stereotype must be deeply discomforting.
As several contributors to these pages have pointed out it would be foolish not to reach out to this working class constituency and to see how we could develop policies that would meet their concerns without compromising our core values. It has also been suggested that we should associate ourselves more closely with trade unions in order to buff up our working class credentials.
This is where I begin to have doubts.
Trade unions are in themselves admirable bodies, part of a long established tradition of voluntary association that stretches back to medieval times and beyond. They play an important political, economic and social role in our society in representing the interests of their members to employers, government and the community at large. It would be an unwise local or national politician who ignored a union. But then it would be unwise of any politician to refuse to listen to any organisation for the job of the politician is to serve the public and recognise their right to make a point of view.
But listening is not the same as agreeing for it is also the task of the politician to make his or her own judgement on what should be done – and to then defend that judgement at the ballot box. For when individuals or groups say that such and such must be done the shrewd man or woman should smile politely and think “Why is this being advocated and for whose benefit?”
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices…”
Adam Smith was a suspicious old bird but he did have a point – and it’s a point worth considering whenever money is involved. Some thought that he was referring to shopkeeper or manufacturers or farmers and indeed he was. But it is also piece of advice that should run across the bottom of the TV screen whenever a union talking head is making a statement.
The primary objective of any trade union above everything else is the protection of their member’s interests. Not the interests of the customer or consumer. Not the interests of the employer. Not the interests of other workers or other trade unions. Not the interests of the community at large.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with that – and when I was a union member paying my regular subscription from my hard earned wages this is what I expected them to do. The trouble is that unions, like employer’s organisations and pressure groups and lobbyists often try to dress up their demands/claims with an obeisance to the “general good”. They will seek to maximise sympathy by special pleading. They will dwell on hardships and draw a blanket over rewards. Above all they will imply in a highly coded manner that, given the limited nature of the funding available, they should get the money rather than other trades.
Trade unions are corporations with a steady predictable income. They employ substantial numbers of staff. Like big business organisations and charities they are constantly lobbying the corridors of Westminster for government “help” (AKA taxpayer’s money)
If UKIP stands for anything it should be the very opposite of such special pleading and secretive shadowy deals in quiet corridors. Are we not essentially a low tax, small government movement that, above all, speaks up for the consumer/customer and the unaffiliated individual – the little guy – rather than the big corporations, the trade unions and the public sector special interest groups that are out to maximise their income at the taxpayers’ expense.
But some might argue that even if it is accepted that trade unions are special interest groups it would still be to UKIP’s advantage to reach out to them as part of a strategy of reaching out to the working class.
Fine – apart from the rather inconvenient fact that conflating “working class” with trade union membership will lead you away from reality and into the world of mythology. A statistical bulletin on Trade Union Membership for 2012 (published May 2013), for BIS says:
“The proportion of employees who were trade union members in the UK has decreased 6 percentage points, from 32 per cent in 1995 to 26 per cent in 2012.”
So the vast majority of “workers” (i.e. people who are employed by someone else) do not belong to unions.
Furthermore in the private sector (factories, workshops, farms, shops – the traditional 1960s/1970s image of stalwart horny handed proletarians in the employ of capitalists) 85% of employees do not belong to unions
It is the public sector – civil service, education, NHS, local government etc, the people who are employed and paid by us, the taxpayers – that is the most heavily unionised at 56% of employees.
And the public sector employees who are more likely to be union members? From the same report:
“Middle-income earners were more likely to be trade union members than either high or low paid employees.About 32 per cent of employees with a degree or equivalent, and 35 per cent with some other Higher Education qualification were in a trade union, compared with 16 per cent of employees with no qualifications.”
Trade unionism in the UK of the 21st century is not really the stuff of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. These are not minimum wage people whose pay levels have been depressed by two decades of uncontrolled immigration. I would suspect that many of them would not automatically be supporters of a small government, low tax party.
By all means let us reach out to the working class – but I doubt whether you would find many of them in the ranks of trade unions in this year of 2014.