Secretive saviours

The rivers of cash from big business that Tony Blair wanted to replace trade union money have dried

Four weeks and counting. Or rather, not counting very much at all, as the Labour Party has run out of money. It has a month to find £7.45m to pay off the wealthy donors recruited by "Lord Cashpoint", aka Lord Levy, or face becoming insolvent. News that the GMB union has decided in an emergency meeting to indemnify its two members on Labour's ruling National Executive Committee (NEC), Mary Turner and Debbie Coulter, has encouraged other unions, such as the mighty Unite, to consider doing the same. Otherwise one of its NEC representatives, Jack Dromey, the Labour Party treasurer and husband of Harriet Harman, risks being made bankrupt. The uncomfortable truth is that under the party's constitution, members of Labour's NEC are "jointly and severally" responsible for the party's debt - now, according to the Electoral Commission website, around £24m with interest - and that includes the Prime Minister, too.

As the rivers of cash from big business that Tony Blair wanted to replace trade union money have dried to a trickle, the large unions have moved to fill at least some of the gap. But there is a problem. The unions simply don't have enough cash to plug the gaping hole; and, more to the point, there is plenty of evidence that their members are increasingly reluctant to allow their leaders to do so.

Unreported at the time, the T&G section of Unite narrowly missed carrying a vote for disaffiliation from the Labour Party last summer. The flight of votes from Labour in the months that followed, and inevitably of trade unionists away from Labour as well, makes it much harder for union general secretaries to bang the drum for the party's coffers. Labour now has few assets and a membership somewhere well below the figure of 200,000. In many parts of the country it has ceased to operate altogether.

The party's impending insolvency is beginning to concentrate minds, not least those of a group of previously Labour-friendly businessmen, who can spot a bargain when they see one. The New Statesman has learned that the unnamed, secretive group - whose members have track records in helping turn round left-leaning institutions in the past - is considering approaching hedge funds with a view to buying out the Labour Party, or rather the remaining individual members, who would be offered shares instead. "Turning the members into shareholders could offer the same opportunities as the demutualisation of the building societies," says one who is involved.

A business plan has yet to be drawn up, as the group will wait until it hears what the NEC intends to do. But the same source adds: "We have been watching how Silvio Berlusconi created Forza Italia in parallel to his business interests, and we believe that our idea offers a fascinating adaptation to British conditions."

Quite how those who are courting this rapidly declining asset stand to benefit is unclear. Another businessman who is part of the "Syndicate", as he puts it, is less guarded. If new Labour became a "limited liability party", it might be possible, he says - not entirely jokingly - to "sell non-core policies, from a customer perspective, as three-to five-year options on implementation in office". These could include policy sales to the nuclear industry or to the green lobby. "This," he points out, "could help ensure that national policies achieve the highest returns. And that could only benefit the shareholders - or, as they used to be known, the party members."

Gordon Brown's preferred candidate for general secretary, the City financier David Pitt-Watson, found his keenness for the job evaporating after he was allowed to see Labour's books and was advised that he, too, could be personally liable for some of the debt. Time is short and Labour may not have the luxury of waiting for a business buyout. In the meantime, the party is looking for two "High-Value Donor Fundraisers". Top of their list for this dynamic duo must surely be the two extremely wealthy individuals who landed the party in this predicament in the first place: Lord Levy and Tony Blair.