The British don't want to be thought conspicuously rich: that's why they steer clear of donations to good causes

Step right up and come this way please. Here is John Prescott, who will give you a guided tour of No 10 and rent you - at £3,000 a night - the Tony and Cherie suite. Think of it! You can live a life in the day of the People's Prime Minister, feel the hand of history upon your shoulder . . . and help your party, all at once. Yes, new Labour may soon be taking a page from the Al Gore book of party fund-raising: the coffers are empty and the party apparatchiks need to go out, cap in hand, to get some money.

At present, the best that the fund-raising department at Millbank Tower has come up with is a chain letter to high-profile donors - Mick Hucknall, Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack, the usual list of suspects - asking them to find ten rich friends who would be willing to give £10,000 to the party's war chest.

The relationship between luvvies and Labour has always been a close one. It was Harold Wilson who bestowed the first thespian peerage on Laurence Olivier. But actors and writers have found the climate under this government colder than they expected. They feel frustrated by their former Labour allies and Sir Peter Hall, spitting about new Labour's agenda of starving the excellent and feeding the common, has set up an Alternative Arts Council. If targetting luvvies won't restore the party's fortunes, begging businessmen for donations is not much better. Remember the £1 million from Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula 1 boss whose donation was deemed to have influenced policy? Not good for the image.

Rather than doorstep the old faithful, it might be more profitable for Labour to go directly to the people, American style. Apart from Al Gore's rent-a-White-House-room scheme, there are the $1,000-a-plate barbecues, which tempt party members with the promise that a celebrity will drop in. And there are the name-and-shame extravaganzas where, at a large dinner party, donations are collected from each guest - and then the amount of each gift announced by the MC. If the contribution is deemed too low, catcalls and hisses fill the hall while the red-faced donor quickly increases his gift.

Given the popularity of the People's Prime Minister, it seems a sensible idea to import these coffer-filling schemes to Britain. Or rather, it would, if the people did not have such a coy - and un-American - attitude to donations.

Huge sectors of American life - universities, hospitals, as well as party politics - flourish because of patrons' extremely generous donations. This is because Americans wear their wealth with pride: for them, to give is to prove they are affluent. When a fund-raiser rings up an American and says, "Ms Smith, I understand that you earn $100,000 a year. Will you donate 1 per cent of that to your party?" the American will explode in fury: "$100,000? I earn $500,000!" - and give accordingly.

Ring her British counterpart, however, and she will say with equal vehemence: "£100,000? I earn £50,000!" This British understatement springs from a residual respect for good manners: a boast is a bore. But above all, it comes from a fear of attracting envy. Like Mediterranean folk who wear beads to ward off the evil eye, the British rich wear worn Barbours and fraying shirts to keep unwanted attention at bay. Talk of money is taboo, conspicuous consumption non-U.

Labour fund-raisers need not despair, though. There is evidence that this age-old attitude to money may be changing. Lists of the "thousand richest people" are designed to bring the affluent out of the closet. Once, the nouveaux riches imitated old money by keeping mum about their fortunes. Now they parade their houses and possessions in the pages of Hello!. Who knows - soon the rich may compete in giving the highest donations, rather than keeping the lowest profile.

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