In an attempt to divert attention away from the Ashcroft scandal, the Conservatives and their allies in the media are today attacking Labour’s financial links with the trade union movement, most notably Unite.
It’s no secret that Labour has become increasingly reliant on the trade unions for money as donations from rich commercial interests and individuals, who bankrolled the party throughout the Blair years, have dried up. I first reported on this back in January and predicted that Labour’s financial dependence on the unions would become a campaign issue.
The brothers were responsible for 64 per cent (£9.8m) of all donations to the party last year, with Unite, Britain’s biggest union, accounting for 25 per cent (£3.6m). By contrast, when Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994, the unions accounted for less than a third of all donations.
It’s never healthy for a party to become reliant on only a few sources of income, and I’d be surprised if any Labour figure argued otherwise.
But what is unreasonable is for the party’s opponents to then suggest that Labour’s reliance on the unions is a scandal comparable to that of Lord Ashcroft’s donations to the Conservatives.
After reading Rachel Sylvester’s column in today’s Times, “In the red corner: Labour’s answer to Ashcroft”, you could be forgiven for assuming that Unite’s political director, Charlie Whelan, alone controls his union’s donations to Labour.
In fact, the donations are taken from Unite’s political fund, to which 1,291,408 members contribute voluntarily. As Will Straw points out, this works out at just under £3 per member per year since March 2007.
There is no comparison to be had between this democratic funding system and the millions the Tories received from Ashcroft, a man who has sat in the legislature for nearly a decade without having the decency to become a full UK taxpayer. The scandal of either Ashcroft misleading the Tories, or the Tories misleading us, does not deserve to end with a whimper.
There are legitimate questions to be asked about Whelan’s apparent return to the fold (not a wise move on Gordon Brown’s part), but the bogus comparison between the unions and Ashcroft doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.