People say that right wing comedy is dead, but I don't agree. The Conservatives have given us some pretty good laughs over the past two weeks. First we had the story of David Cameron doing something, and now this: the Tories, the party systematically beating the trade union movement into submission, is setting up – yes – its own union.
This is so ridiculous that a satirical novel based on the premise would win prizes. And it’s exactly the sort of behaviour that explains the Tory nickname of the “nasty party”.
For all the laughs, there’s a very sinister motive behind all this. It's yet another illustration of the Conservative government employing doublespeak to rebrand both themselves and the trade union movement without either actually changing their spots.
It started notably with Business Secretary Sajid Javid stating that the proposed Trade Union Bill would “balance the rights of union members with workers”, neglecting to mention that union members are workers and that we spend both subscription fees and our professional time protecting workers’ rights because politicians like him are attacking them.
The way this latest announcement has been framed is a setting up of false oppositions. The Conservatives maintain that most union members don't agree with the “hard left” politics of their firebrand leaders. This at first glance might have some grounds; no union member joins up asking for “more fiery rhetoric please”.
But what they do ask for in joining a union is an organisation that will represent them in the fight for fair pay, paid parental leave, a safe working environment, and a workplace free from bullying. They want not to be sacked unfairly, or discriminated against for their gender, sexual orientation, race or disability; for their basic wellbeing to given at least as high a priority as profit margins; and to be treated with basic respect and dignity. And they ask also that all of that is afforded to others, too.
None of that is a demand for Len McCluskey to go off on one on Question Time in their name. But the point is that all of those requests add up to a set of rights and principles that the Conservative party has opposed.
Label it “left wing”, or “radical”, or whatever you want, but the trade union movement stands for change to our society which the Conservatives have blocked at every turn, and therefore the only way to see that change happen has been to take on Conservatism. Framing the politics of the trade union movement and its leadership as somehow separate from those shared demands made by union members as a collective isn't just misunderstanding unions, it's deliberately misleading British workers.
Even moderate, non party-political, unions are unhappy with the Government. Junior doctors are voting on taking strike action over imposed changes to their contracts. The RCS has issued a statement pointedly stating concern about levels of morale in the health service. The RCN was forced to go on strike for the first time in its history in response to 2014's discontent over pay.
Conservatives have already tried a wheeze like this. Conservatives at Work has been around for decades and has never been received with anything other than rapturous silence. That they've rejigged the idea and re-announced it - and what a way to announce it to ordinary workers, in an interview in a Parliamentary magazine - is amusing only if you ignore the wider context: the full throttled attempt to silence collective opposition.
Along with tactics on boundary changes, the Lobbying Act, and the attack on Labour funding contained in the trade union bill, this latest piece of manoeuvring adds up to a nasty narrative that any supporter of democracy - regardless of their support for unions - should be opposing. It might be the stuff of satire, but living with its effects won’t be that funny.
Rebecca Winson is a writer, and activist and workplace representative for the GMB unionReuse content