It’s completely understandable that firms want to do a spot of ‘due diligence’ when hiring workers. It may also mean that they lose out … Michael Gove makes the case for selective amnesia

If you were running an organisation that had nearly been brought to its knees by union militancy, if your employees had faced abuse and intimidation simply for going to work, if your company had been boycotted, insulted and abused by voices on the left who were dead set on your downfall, how big a risk would you take with recruitment?

Would you hire someone with a track record of union militancy, who’d spent months on picket lines, repeatedly taken strike action and lobbied politicians both here and in Europe on behalf of comrades’ cause? Would you even let them be interviewed?

Well, Rupert Murdoch did. And I’m eternally in his debt for it.

Reading this week about the blacklisting dispute that convulsed the building trade, I can’t help but reflect on my own youthful tendency towards the militant. As a young journalist I was a loyal union member and went on strike twice while a trainee with Aberdeen Journals. I was happy to warm my hands by the the picket line brazier, and happier still to defend the right of workers to be represented collectively.

Would you hire someone with a track record of union militancy, who had spent months on picket lines and repeatedly taken strike action? WOuld you even interview them?

With a background like that, where would I have featured on any industry-wide index of troublesome workers? Well, whatever some might have concluded, one company that didn’t care about my past, but only what I wanted to contribute in the future, was News International. The Times hired me while my NUJ card was still smoky from the brazier. A few years after standing on one picket line, I was in Wapping, where the most notorious picket lines in newspaper history stretched. 

It’s 20 years since I went out on strike, and as I look back on that wrenching, turbulent, time I cannot help but think we made a mistake opting for dramatic industrial action. Just as I’m convinced that if Murdoch had not led the modernisation of the media industry then newspapers would have become desperate, sickly creatures. The vibrancy and vigour of our pluralist press is a consequence of his bravery.

But even though I think the militancy of the eighties was a wrong turning, and even though I believe you can’t generate prosperity unless you let managers manage, and give shareholders their due, I also know that those who took to the picket line with me were not wreckers to be blacklisted but idealists who deserved to be heard.

These are tough times in the construction industry, and with balance sheets under pressure and land values at rock bottom, many companies will, understandably, feel that they can’t afford additional risk. Everything has to be as secure as possible. And if that means going the extra mile with due diligence, of whatever kind, then so be it.

the best union leaders recognise that their survival depends on keeping their members, and the businesses for which they work, healthy and safe

I sympathise. Its vital we keep construction firms afloat, because so many jobs will go down with them if they go under. But at the same time, I’d like to enter a plea for constructive engagement with the unions and those who speak for them, because it can yield significant, and sustained, dividends.

The union movement has changed since the seventies and eighties, and is changing even more in these recessionary times. Yes, there are still Trotskyite theorists and those nostalgic for the days of Scargill and Scanlon in their ranks, but today’s best union leaders recognise that their survival depends on keeping their members, and the businesses for which they work, healthy and safe.

In practical terms, good union reps will be keen to ensure industrial accidents are minimised, safety is maximised and, as a result, every site is working as efficiently as possible. More broadly, enlightened union leaders know that insisting on inflexible working practices will doom them, and their members, to economic irrelevance. It was interesting, but no longer surprising, to hear union leaders talking about the future of the steel industry in Redcar at the weekend in terms which explicitly accepted the need for British industry to be globally competitive.

Now, I’m as free market as the next man. And since my office is adjacent to David Davis’ that’s no idle declaration. But I also recognise that the most important asset any company has is its employees. Getting the most of out of people involves dialogue, and in any dialogue the terms can’t be set entirely by one party. Just as we no longer want to erect pastiche buildings, so we shouldn’t erect barriers to better working because of a pastiche view of industrial relations. It’s time to leave the seventies behind.