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2 August 2012

The Lib Dems’ money woes are growing

Clegg's party might need a spell in opposition just to balance the books.

By Rafael Behr

The Electoral Commission has published its accounts of political party income and expenditure. The table showing the financial state of health of the top 14 – the ones that get £250,000 or more – is available here.

The item that has made a few headlines is the drop in income for the Tories. The party’s takings were down by 45 per cent on the previous year – now at the same level they were last at in 2003. That’s wilderness income. Of course, the Conservative coffers will fill up again as an election approaches. They always do. But the fall in revenue might also reflect disquiet among big donors at negative publicity attached to the status of being seen to be a Cameron crony (especially after this incident) and irritation at the party leadership’s willingness to indulge media bashing of bankers, high pay and fat-cattery.  The Telegraph’s Ben Brogan wrote a column earlier this week suggesting donors were sniffing around Boris Johnson as a friendlier protege.

Labour also received less than last year but, thanks to the trade unions, the party’s funding stream is a little more stable (although there is a political price to be paid for that dependency … the subject of another much longer blog another time).

One thing that caught my eye in this year’s accounts though was the perennial shortage of cash felt by the Lib Dems. They take in a fraction of the sums enjoyed by the big two and, unlike their rivals, spend more than they earn. One of the cruelties of coalition for the Lib Dems is that power has not suddenly opened up new exciting financing opportunities. Joining the governing big league has not granted entry to some exclusive high rolling donors club. Meanwhile, the party has lost the “short money” made available by the state to official opposition parties. And to make matters worse, Lib Dem councillors traditionally chip in around 10 per cent of their allowances to help fund the party. So the massacres in local elections in recent years have put a further squeeze on income. The Lib Dems, in other words, are utterly broke.

One senior Labour figure recently suggested to me that this would ultimately be the factor that breaks the coalition. The Lib Dems, this theory goes, will have to quit the government a year or so before an election so they can get their short money back. Without it they simply wouldn’t be able to mount a campaign. Now that could be spite and mischief from the enemy camp (the shadow cabinet figure involved is no admirer of the Cleggists) but senior Lib Dems themselves don’t deny privately that they have serious money woes. Maybe staying in government to the very bitter end will prove a luxury they can’t afford.

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