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

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war