One of David Cameron’s better lines at Prime Minister’s Questions was that the trade unions ‘buy the candidates, they buy the policies and they buy the leader’. In his final response to Ed Miliband, he said:
‘What is Labour’s policy on Royal Mail? It is determined by the Communication Workers Union. What is its policy on health? It is determined by Unison. What is its policy on party funding? It is determined by Unite.’
To underline that point, Jeremy Hunt has sent a letter to Andy Burnham this afternoon asking for ‘clarification about union influence over Labour health policy’. The letter, which you can read in full here, says Burnham altered Government policy ‘in response to union demands’. Hunt writes:
‘For example, as Health Secretary in 2009, you changed Government policy and introduced a ‘preferred provider’ rule in response to Unite lobbying led by Brendan Barber. This U-turn reversed a long-standing Labour policy commitment: revoking your manifesto aim to expand and develop different types of provision, contradicting the nine-month old NHS Constitution commitment to allow patients to choose the organisation providing their NHS care, and tearing up your Department’s legal principles on NHS co-operation and competition. You may recall that there were reports of Cabinet ‘consternation’ over how this change fit with Labour’s commitment to mutualisation, and charities and third sector organisations shut out of the health system by this change complained of a ‘back-room deal’.
The letter points to this fact sheet, which says ‘following requests from unions, there has been a significant policy change’. Hunt adds:
‘Shadow cabinet members now admit that Unite used donations to dictate candidate selection, but have so far denied that Unite used this influence to dictate policy. The evidence from your time as Secretary of State suggests otherwise. As such, I’m writing to ask you to come clean on the extend of Unite’s influence on Labour health policy.’
Hunt wants permission to let his department release dates and minutes of meetings and correspondence between ministers and union leaders from Burnham’s time as Health Secretary. He also asks for a list of all union donations to shadow health ministers’ constituency parties, election campaigns and parliamentary offices, a breakdown of all Unite’s involvement in discussions about Labour’s health policy and ‘assurances that Labour’s 2015 health manifesto will not be discussed with Unite or subject to any influence from them or other union donors to the Labour Party?’
As James said earlier, no party comes out well from a debate about funding. But since the Tories want this scrap, it’s not a bad idea to pursue the line that the unions have a very clear influence over party policy, even against the wishes of the Cabinet. The Conservatives are also trying to push back against Ed Miliband’s call for a £5,000 cap on donations, saying ‘he’s saying the taxpayer should bail him out of his union scandal’.