15/03/2012 17:46 GMT | Updated 16/03/2012 03:16 GMT

Robert Halfon MP Urges Tories To Bypass Union Leaders And Go For Grassroots Members

Trade unions are "bastions of capitalism" and can be "soulmates" of the Tories, it was claimed on Friday.

Conservative MP Robert Halfon has called on his party to embrace the movement, claiming one third of members are Conservatives and more public sector workers voted Tory than Labour at the last election.

In a pamphlet, Stop the Union Bashing, published by think-tank Demos, he urges Tories to look beyond union bosses such as Unite's Len McCluskey and PCS boss Mark Serwotka and court grassroots members.

The report, likely to be seen by leading union figures as highly provocative, recommends discounting Conservative party membership to 50p for union members as well as staging appearances at their events.

While Conservative former prime minister Margaret Thatcher may be widely remembered as the nemesis of the union movement after stripping it of significant powers and using the office to embark on a military-style campaign to break the miners' strike of 1984/85, Mr Halfon insists she was a supporter of "moderate" unions.

He also claims most trades unions promote private healthcare schemes and their trading activities are based on capitalist principles.

It's the latest in a series of antagonistic moves by backbench Tories towards the unions. In January rising star Jesse Norman attempted to introduce a Bill to parliament which would stop the practice of trade union officials working full-time on union business at the expense of the taxpayer. The Bill was defeated after Labour packed out the division lobbies to oppose it.

Last month communities secretary Eric Pickles told a meeting of backbench Tories at Westminster that the union officials getting taxpayer funding was like "the last page from Animal Farm" and pledged that ministers would find a way of stopping it.

In an article for The Daily Telegraph Halfon writes: "Trade unions are still the largest membership associations in Britain and have far more members than all the political parties combined.

"They matter first and foremost to British workers as a source of collective bargaining, but they matter also to the Conservative Party as a source of electoral support.

"Conservatives should move away from union-bashing and work more constructively with moderate unions.

"Behind the noise and the air war of the militants, so often unions on the ground embody the big society, are community institutions and offer invaluable services to their members.

"The Conservative party could explore affiliating with friendly unions or trade associations. This could lead to them working together on social action projects and community events.

"It could involve running joint campaigns on jobs, wages and apprenticeships. Of the 58 unions that are currently members of the TUC, just 15 are formally affiliated with Labour.

"If a significant minority of trade unionists vote for the Conservative party, then under the right conditions Conservatives and trade unionists can be soulmates."

Max Wind-Cowie, head of the Progressive Conservatism project at Demos, said: "The Tory party does not have to be locked into constant conflict with trades unions.

"As Robert Halfon points out, they can be friends and partners on a whole range of issues.

"But that will require a bit more maturity from both sides - trades unionists need to work harder to ensure they're not allowing their admirable movements to become captured by niche militants and the Conservative Party has to get over its knee-jerk cynicism."