NUM has only pounds 804 to fight election

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

The once-mighty National Union of Mineworkers has just pounds 804 in its political fund, causing mounting alarm among union-sponsored Labour MPs that thousands of pounds they expected to be available to fight the general election will no longer be forthcoming.

The paltry sum, to be recorded in the union's accounts for the year ending 31 March, stands in contrast to the pounds 132,000 figure published by the Certification Officer, the union financial watchdog, in December 1994. In the strike year, 1984, the union had almost pounds 1.2m in the fund. This had fallen to pounds 500,000 by 1989.

A separate political fund must be used for payments to constituency parties, MPs and election expenses. But none of the 12-strong group of NUM sponsored MPs - which includes figures such as the left-winger Dennis Skinner - or their constituencies has received any money for two years.

Under the so-called Hastings Agreement - which Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC) scrapped in favour of voluntary payments by unions to constituencies last month - the NUM used to pay 80 per cent of sponsored MPs' election expenses, worth about pounds 4,000 per candidate, and pounds 400 a year to each MP plus pounds 600 a year to their constituencies. In practice, the MPs took no personal benefit, channelling the pounds 400 back to meet constituency expenses.

NUM membership now stands at barely 7,000, compared to 600,000 in the 1920s, when the union sponsored more than 40 MPs from pit constituencies and was the backbone of Labour Party finances.

Last December the sponsored MPs agreed informally with Arthur Scargill, the union's president, to forgo current payments of the contributions and in effect allow the union to store them up for release at the time of the election.

But the MPs were horrified to learn that Mr Scargill told the NEC last month that the MPs had agreed to a permanent change in NUM rules giving the union complete discretion over what it pays out and to whom.

The discovery of the tiny sum of money in the political fund has set alarm bells ringing over the financing of a looming general election campaign.

The group is pressing Mr Scargill for a meeting to discuss whether there will be any money at all, and whether it would be paid to the constituency parties, as allowed under the new arrangements passed by the NEC last month.

One MP said of the rule change, passed at a special union meeting: "We didn't agree to a change of rule or agree that this should be a permanent situation. We were not told, not consulted, over changing the rules."

He added: "To pull the rug from under us at this stage would be a disaster. There could be an election this year. We don't have time to fund-raise enough money."

The souring of a historic sponsorship tradition going back almost 90 years coincides with fears that Mr Scargill would attempt to use the union's funds to support his breakaway Socialist Labour Party which he set up as the left-wing answer to Tony Blair's "new" Labour Party. But few MPs believe he would garner sufficient support for this move within the union at large. They believe the difference between the pounds 132,000 and the present pounds 804 has simply been used for the union's own purposes.