There is no comparison between the trade unions and Michael Ashcroft

The bogus comparison between union donations and the Tory peer's millions.

In an attempt to divert attention away from the Ashcroft scandal, the Conservatives and their allies in the media are today attacking Labour's financial links with the trade union movement, most notably Unite.

It's no secret that Labour has become increasingly reliant on the trade unions for money as donations from rich commercial interests and individuals, who bankrolled the party throughout the Blair years, have dried up. I first reported on this back in January and predicted that Labour's financial dependence on the unions would become a campaign issue.

The brothers were responsible for 64 per cent (£9.8m) of all donations to the party last year, with Unite, Britain's biggest union, accounting for 25 per cent (£3.6m). By contrast, when Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994, the unions accounted for less than a third of all donations.

It's never healthy for a party to become reliant on only a few sources of income, and I'd be surprised if any Labour figure argued otherwise.

But what is unreasonable is for the party's opponents to then suggest that Labour's reliance on the unions is a scandal comparable to that of Lord Ashcroft's donations to the Conservatives.

After reading Rachel Sylvester's column in today's Times, "In the red corner: Labour's answer to Ashcroft", you could be forgiven for assuming that Unite's political director, Charlie Whelan, alone controls his union's donations to Labour.

In fact, the donations are taken from Unite's political fund, to which 1,291,408 members contribute voluntarily. As Will Straw points out, this works out at just under £3 per member per year since March 2007.

There is no comparison to be had between this democratic funding system and the millions the Tories received from Ashcroft, a man who has sat in the legislature for nearly a decade without having the decency to become a full UK taxpayer. The scandal of either Ashcroft misleading the Tories, or the Tories misleading us, does not deserve to end with a whimper.

There are legitimate questions to be asked about Whelan's apparent return to the fold (not a wise move on Gordon Brown's part), but the bogus comparison between the unions and Ashcroft doesn't deserve to be taken seriously.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for International Trade.

Only Nixon, it is said, could have gone to China. Only a politician with the impeccable Commie-bashing credentials of the 37th President had the political capital necessary to strike a deal with the People’s Republic of China.

Theresa May’s great hope is that only Liam Fox, the newly-installed Secretary of State for International Trade, has the Euro-bashing credentials to break the news to the Brexiteers that a deal between a post-Leave United Kingdom and China might be somewhat harder to negotiate than Vote Leave suggested.

The biggest item on the agenda: striking a deal that allows Britain to stay in the single market. Elsewhere, Fox should use his political capital with the Conservative right to wait longer to sign deals than a Remainer would have to, to avoid the United Kingdom being caught in a series of bad deals. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.