Iain Dale writes today of his outrage that unions are being given public money through the Union Modernisation Fund, which he thinks they channel back into the Labour Party via donations. Aside from the fact this is impossible in most cases – because UMF funding is given to non-Labour affiliated unions too, who constitute the vast majority* – I’m amazed if Iain’s outrage is fresh and new.
Partly because the Tories have complained for years about things like the UMF, such as when they published a pamphlet last year which (flatteringly) drew on my work for Tribune.
And partly because, despite the well-connected Iain’s predictions, it’s not at all probable that a Conservative government will scrap the UMF, whose official purpose is to help unions help vulnerable workers and promote their activities in doing so (and to be fair, the funding applications are vetted – they don’t just dish out cash upfront).
On Monday I spoke to Richard Balfe, David Cameron’s personal envoy to the unions and a very nice and approachable man. He played down the cost of the UMF, saying it costs around £12-16 million a year – a drop in the ocean with national debt on course for over £1 trillion.
Balfe also praised the role of unions in reaching out and finding vulnerable workers who need to be told their rights at work, saying they were a very effective way of reaching foreign workers who can’t speak English. He praised a UMF grant which funds a literacy programme he had been to visit.
In fact Balfe was very complimentary of the work unions do – perhaps unsurprisingly as he was at the TUC, but he is a union member (Unite) and sees himself as much as the unions’ envoy to Cameron as the other way round.
Both are responding: Cameron has told his shadow cabinet that they must not turn down requests for meetings from unions. And the unions have held well over 50 meetings with Tory shadow ministers so far this year, he says – in fact one “big union” (I can’t tell you which) has had more than 50 on its own.
None of this should surprise Tories, whose leader said last week he wanted “maximum consensus” with unions over public sector pensions.
Update: Maybe this should surprise them though. Forgot to say, Balfe also said: “I want to knock out the stupid wing of the Tory party that regards the unions as their enemy”. I wonder who he has in mind. Hague? Dan Hannan? Philip “I’m going to be the most hated man in Britain” Hammond?
*The press release Iain cites mentions £2.46 million being given in the latest handout to 12 unions and the TUC. Of those 13 bodies, four – RMT, NUJ, GFTU and the TUC itself – are not affiliated.