The Tories this week demanded the suspension of what they have described as a “slush fund” for the unions: the union modernisation fund.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said: “Union barons fund the Labour Party by ripping off union members. In turn, Labour ministers fund the union barons by ripping off taxpayers.
“It is scandalous there is no proper audit or paper trail to how taxpayers’ money is being spent.”
The government and the unions see the fund differently; it is designed to support “innovative” projects which improve union efficiency.
The business department, which provides the money, says: “The fund can’t be used to support the day-to-day or political activities of unions. Bids are assessed by an independent supervisory board comprising individuals from union, academic and industry backgrounds.”
So is the Tory anger over this synthetic?
Richard Balfe, the Tories union “linkman”, refused to meet me at the TUC this week. But he did talk to Rene Lavanchy, correspondent for the Labour-supporting Tribune magazine.
His message was rather different. As Rene writes on the Tribune blog:
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.
So is it one Tory message for Middle England and another for the unions? No wonder the brothers are still rather suspicious.