Delegates walk past a banner outside the Labour conference on September 23, 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Labour's finances are healthier than most think - but dangers remain

The party has reduced its debts from £25m in 2005 to £4.5m but risks to funding have increased. 

Labour's decision to end its commercial relationship with the Co-operative Bank has come as no surprise to anyone in the party. The bank, which is now 70 per cent owned by US investors, was already reviewing the link as part of its new "apolitical" approach and, for Labour, there is an understandable interest in no longer being directly associated with the scandal-ridden instiution. The £1.2m loan that the party currently has with the Co-op will be transferred to the Unity Trust Bank, jointly owned by a coalition of trade unions and the Co-op itself (although it is currently attempting to sell its 27 per cent stake). 

The move has inevitably led to comment on the wider state of Labour's finances. ConservativeHome's Mark Wallace writes: "All of this is bad news for Ed Miliband’s election machine. True to their national record, the Labour party itself is laden with debt, and its fund-raising attempts have brought in less money than they hoped." Yet while Labour is far from flush with cash, its financial situation is healthier than generally thought. After reaching the dangerously high level of £25m in 2005 (putting it close to bankruptcy), its debts have been reduced to £4.5m and the party is on track to eliminate the blackhole entirely by 2016. In 2012, it ran a surplus (for the sixth successive year) of £2.8m and raised £12.03m to the Tories' £13.8m. 

But there are several black clouds on the horizon. The first is the probability that the separate Co-operative Group will end most or all of its funding to Labour having recently consulted the public on whether it was appropriate for it to continue to donate to a political party. In 2012, it donated £810,000 to Labour (the typical annual amount), including £563,000 to the affiliated Co-operative party (of which 32 Labour MPs are members) and £50,000 to Ed Balls's office. 

The second is the impact of Ed Miliband's party reforms. To date, his decision to require all trade union members to opt into donating to Labour, has prompted Unite and the GMB to reduce their funding by £2.55m. Both unions have already made it clear that some of this shortfall will be reduced through one-off donations but the party is still likely to suffer a net financial loss. 

The third is the likelihood of the party winning the next general election. As one source recently pointed out to me, this would mean the loss of all of the £6.4m Labour currently receives in "short money", the state funding made available to assist opposition parties with their costs (such as travel expenses and running the leader's office). "A lot of people know their jobs are on the line if we win," he said. 

With Labour's general election spending already constrained by its debt reduction target, expect the party to step up its fundraising efforts over the next year in a bid to ensure a fair fight with the Tories. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.