Tories: Unions will ‘get things’ if they co-operate

Richard Balfe

Richard Balfe

So, the big boys have moved onto my patch. Once upon a time, nobody was very interested in talking to Richard Balfe, the former Labour MEP and Tory defector who was approached by David Cameron last year about becoming an envoy to the trade union movement. The same movement part of which bankrolls the Labour Party. I got in touch with him this summer, when his name still graced few pages.

We had a fairly unexciting off-the-record chat, but he said a few notable things which are now on the record:

1) The Tories are considering whether to continue government subsidy to unions, in the form of the Union Modernisation Fund – which is used to help unions restructure and modernise – and funding of Unionlearn, a scheme which encourages employees to take advantage of workplace learning opportunities.

2) A lot of unions are talking to him. Hardly surprising really; there are over 100 in the country and only 16 actively suppport the Labour Party. Two who say they haven’t agreed to meet Balfe – Unite and UCATT – are Labour-affiliated.

Then came the TUC Congress, and now look. Sam Coates of The Times devoted a lengthy piece to Mr Balfe and Iain Dale in the Telegraph discussed why the Tories are courting the unions (and his answer – that they’re key swing voters, all six million of them – does make sense). What makes this a good story is that Labour will evaporate without union money and organisation.

So what is going on right now?

I wrote a story in this week’s Tribune on the subject. The headline is admittedly misleading; it should really say the unions say they’re not co-operating. For example. Andrew Murray, a Unite communications officer, is quoted by The Times as saying that “We are a Labour-affiliated union and a meeting would be a mistake and none of our members would want or expect one”.

Hmm. Murray himself is no friend of Labour – one trade unionist who knows him calls him an “unreconstructed Stalinist” – and in any case, Balfe tells me that it’s only the T&G section of Unite, headed by joint general secretary Tony Woodley, that won’t talk to him. The Amicus section has spoken to him.

The truth is that Balfe has had considerable success in speaking to union bosses who call themselves dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporters. That doesn’t mean they’re about to stop supporting Labour. They will continue to fund it. As one senior union official recently told me of the government: “They may be arseholes, but they’re our arseholes”.

But they are all writing insurance policies for after the election, which no Labour-supporting union expects them to win.

And as far as union subsidy goes, the prospects look good for them. Balfe happily told me on the record that the chair of Unionlearn, Billy Hayes, “has co-operated. He will get things. Tony Woodley has not.” If that’s true, and not an attempt at divide and rule, it’s pretty serious. Billy Hayes is the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, which has over 200,000 members and which has given £4.6 million in donations to Labour since 2001.

Many union members already vote Tory – about a third of Unite members do, and Unite is one of the most loyal Labour unions. Richard Balfe is not going to change how people vote- that’s Cameron’s job. But he can encourage the more amenable unions to reduce their support for Labour. That way, he tells me, the party can go back to core Labour values – and to political irrelevance.

Expect Labour to fight back. But for now, the Tories have the initiative – and the media spotlight.


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