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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear