Labour-Tory funding gap at record level

There is now an unarguable case for state funding

David Blunkett has emerged as a refreshingly blunt figure in recent weeks. After first admitting that Labour had to be careful to avoid bankruptcy after the election, he declared that it would be a "miracle" if Gordon Brown beat David Cameron (it would be, but senior MPs aren't meant to say this sort of thing).

Now he's revealed that Labour needs to raise £10m in just three months to give it a chance of competing with the Conservatives' £18m war chest. As I reported earlier this month, donations from the rich individuals who bankrolled election campaigns in the past have all but dried up, leaving the party increasingly dependent on the trade unions for money.

By contrast, in the 2005 election, Labour spent a record £17,939,617 -- £87,000 more than the Tories' £17,852,240. The Conservatives outspent Labour in 1997 and 2001, but only by about £2m. Data on election spending since 1910 suggests there has never been a funding gap this large between the two main parties (see graph below).

 

Election spending graph 

As I've argued before, Labour should run a John Major-style soapbox campaign in response to this disadvantage, resurrecting the effective slogan "Not flash, just Gordon".

In the longer term, however, there is now an indisputable case for state funding. The situation may not be as troubling as the US, where Michael Bloomberg spent $100m of his personal fortune to win a third term as mayor of New York, but it's still unsustainable.

It is unhealthy for Labour to be so dependent on a few big unions (Unite accounted for 25 per cent of all the party's donations in 2009), but it's also unacceptable for the Tories to rely on a figure as dubious as Lord Ashcroft.

Unfortunately, in the wake of the expenses scandal, almost no politician is willing or able to make an effective case for state funding.

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.