Interview: Richard Balfe, Conservative trade union envoy

Any mention of the Conservative Party in the same breath as the trade union movement evokes vivid images of strikers and police acting out the bitter battles between Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, in the 1980s.

HR professionals old enough to remember That­cher defeating her revolutionary adversary may well hope for a similarly tough line if the Conservatives return to power under David Cameron. But Richard Balfe insists that they were merely a brief and necessary blip in an otherwise lengthy and happy relationship between government and unions.

His appointment last year as Conservative envoy to the trade union movement shows Cameron’s desire to win back trade union members’ hearts and to extend the Tories’ appeal beyond core voters – particularly with a general election due soon.

Labours laws will stay

Yet Balfe also hinted that the Tories might go one step further to keep unions onside. He said the Conservative Party was unlikely to repeal any employment law suggested by the Labour government, or cut back on the scale of legislation introduced.

“We are not greatly worked up about the new labour law”, he said. Even the extension of the right to request flexible working for parents with children aged 16 or under, expected by some employers to create a burden of extra paperwork, gave him no real problems. “Flexible working is good for the economy – here at Conservative Central Office we have ­people who have Fridays off, and so on,” he said.

In fact, employment law in the UK was now a “matter of national consensus”, he said. “After 11 years of Labour, the Thatcher legislation remains on statute. We have no plans for any major labour law reform.”

His views appeared to contradict those of shadow business secretary Alan Duncan, who told Personnel Today last November that HR professionals would see “improvements in employment law and employment tribunals” under a Tory reign. Balfe insisted, however, that employers had nothing to fear from his relationship-building with the unions.

“We are not going to get into a position where a trade union says it prefers the Conservative Party to Labour,” he said. “But we aim to increase understanding. My role is getting out there and meeting trade unionists. One day the Conservative Party will be elected, and there are six or seven million trade unionists we have to get to know.”

Building relationships

The Tories have identified three areas where a relationship with the unions is particularly important: the expansion of nuclear power, increased use of high-speed rail in place of airport growth, and developing cleaner coal technology.

“We have valuable jobs to give them [unions], and they have valuable input to give us,” Balfe summed up. “If you look back at the history of labour law there is a strong strand of working together,” he said.

“The best way of running a firm is in agreement, and most of the unionised industries do not have industrial action.”

Balfe was an MEP for 25 years – but only the final two were spent representing the Conservatives. Before a brief spell as an independent, he represented Labour for 22 years. He was expelled from Labour in the European Parliament in 2002 after defying the leadership’s instructions not to stand for election as one of the parliament’s five senior MEPs, who look after the interests of Euro-MPs.

“It was the dumbest day’s work they ever did,” said Balfe. Political issues aside, Balfe stressed that over the quarter of a century he was an MEP he had seen employers become much wiser to the workings of the EU.

“The CBI has become more competent and efficient,” he said. “It identifies what its interests are at the right time. You can’t intervene once an issue gets to Parliament – you need ­people on the ground seeing when draft legislation is being drawn up. British employers and unions are more on the ball now.” He added that he supported the Conservative motto of “in Europe, not run by Europe” and its muscular approach in the European parliament.

Meanwhile, Balfe was full of praise for Cameron’s leadership. “He is very good at mixing with his troops, and he is close to the generation that works here, he can speak their language and inspire their loyalty. I would not have been here under previous leaders.”

Taking on the TUC

As it was, Balfe got the call from Cameron last spring, asking him to devote two days a week to his envoy role. His appointment is said to have paved the way for him to take to the TUC platform this year – breaking the exclusive link Labour has enjoyed with the union movement for decades.

It was a job he was eager to accept, having retired as a Tory MEP at the age of 60 in 2004. “Politics is a great consumer of weekends,” he said. “I wanted to see more of my wife – and as an MEP, you get a really good pension at 60. I grew up in a children’s home so I didn’t have a lot of money and I needed a monthly income.”

Balfe hopes that his work will help the Tories run a productive nation if they come to power. But he warns that Labour’s current attempts to blast its way out of the recession will leave the next government with a mountain to climb. “We will inherit a bust country,” he said. “Steptoe & Son [the British sitcom about two rag-and-bone men] would look good compared to what we are going to get.”

CV: Richard Balfe

  • 2008 to present Conservative envoy to the trade union movement
  • Since 1 Jan 09 Director, Center European Research Nucleaire
  • 2008 to present, Chairman of Anglia Community Leisure
  • 1994 to present Chairman of MEP Pension Fund
  • 2002 to 2004 Conservative MEP
  • 1979 to 2001 Labour MEP

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