Members of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) PCS union branch joined a picket last night outside the London museum during the Conservative Party’s summer fundraising gala.
The demonstration was organised by PCS Culture Group to demand a higher pay rise than the 2-3% proposed by the UK Government for public culture sector workers. The union has described the settlement as a “real-terms pay cut” in light of the cost of living crisis, which has seen inflation spiral by 11%.
The picket was joined by Labour MP John McDonnell, who said the Tory party was “using our museum as the venue for a £20,000 a table fundraiser for their wealthy donors at a time when people are struggling to feed their children and make ends meet”.
Cabinet ministers including the culture secretary Nadine Dorries were booed as they arrived at the museum for the event. Prizes auctioned off included a £30,000 wine tasting, a £37,000 shooting weekend and a £120,000 dinner with David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
In a statement before the protest, PCS industrial officer Steven Warwick said: “Knowing that Tories will welcome in the summer dining at a table which costs more than many museum workers make in a year is shameful. It is a kick in the teeth to the people who kept this museum running during a pandemic, many of whom lost their jobs because of the government’s inadequate Covid response.”
It is not yet clear whether museums sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, including the V&A, will be subject to the public sector pay cap this year; the museum freedoms that usually exempt them from the cap were suspended in 2020/21 due to Covid. Unions have said that, regardless of the situation, pay settlements at national institutions are likely to be difficult this year.
A spokeswoman for the V&A said: “We have not yet reached agreement on a pay settlement for 2021-22 so are unable to comment on this further.”
The campaign group Led By Donkeys has criticised the V&A’s decision to host the event, saying it breached impartiality rules for public institutions because the ball was a political event that acted as an opportunity for “wealthy individuals to gain access to cabinet ministers to successfully lobby them on behalf of their business interests”.
Led By Donkeys said the museum’s impartiality had also been compromised at a recent fundraising lunch for the Conservatives, in which one of the prizes auctioned off was an exclusive tour by V&A chair of trustees Nicholas Coleridge, who is a Tory donor. Conservative Party chairman Ben Elliott also sits on the museum’s board.
The group said: “The code of conduct for board members of public by bodies like the V&A says trustees should be, and be seen to be, politically impartial and should not occupy a high-profile role in a political party.”
The V&A told the group that no staff or resources had been involved in the tour and no special access to the museum was offered.
The V&A’s director Tristram Hunt defended the decision to host the ball, tweeting: “Private venue hire is an important income stream to ensure the V&A stays free and open for everyone, and the collections cared for. Political parties are very welcome to rent out spaces on commercial terms. Personally, I hope the Labour Party might one day be in a position to do so.”
A spokesperson for the V&A told Museums Journal: “The event was a standard corporate hire. None of our trustees were involved in the process of contracting the event. All rates charged for the event were in line with those advertised publicly online, with no special discounts or dispensations.
“The V&A is partially funded but depends upon other forms of income generation to sustain our programme of exhibitions, events and education work, as well as maintaining our collections and galleries. This income generation includes corporate hire of our venue spaces as well as our membership programme, our temporary exhibitions, retail and sponsorship.”