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How do you beat a rival 70 times richer than you? Inside Labour’s cash-strapped campaign

For every pound donated to Labour, someone handed the Tories £70. 

By Julia Rampen

In the first two weeks of the general election campaign, the Conservatives raised £4,388,000 in individual donations. The Lib Dems raised £340,000, and Labour raised £61,300. In other words, for every pound donated to Labour, someone handed the Tories £70.

That funding gap means that despite Labour’s strong campaign, individual candidates are operating on a shoe string. The snap election has given them little time to prepare, even in terms of gathering basic equipment, and raising the money to pay for campaigning materials. 

“A lot of candidates won’t have any premises, won’t have anywhere to put their campaign,” a former Labour candidate told me. “They will need to buy a printer, have some where to put the printer.” Leaflets alone can cost a campaign thousands of pounds – forcing candidates to cut back on other costs. “I have known people run campaigns out of basements and spare rooms,” the former candidate added.

An email to members signed by Jeremy Corbyn on 1 June declared the party needed “£500,000 before polling day”. Begging tactics aside, Labour’s coffers are empty. Campaign funding insiders say money that would be thrown at prospective MPs in previous elections is being diverted to incumbents instead.

One of the problems for Labour is that its local branches tend to build up their war chests slowly, through monthly fundraising events and a trickle of donations. “This snap election has been particularly unusual,” Ashley Dalton, the Labour candidate for Rochford and Southend East told me.  “It is not just a general election all of a sudden – it is general election two years after a general election, in between which we had the EU referendum. We spent money on that as well.” 

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Necessity has forced Labour candidates to embrace innovation. Dalton expected to spend £2,000 on campaign materials alone, but there was only £670 left in the pot. She turned to crowdfunding instead, and has raised more than £1,600, including donations as large as £100. Still, her campaign is modest compared to her Conservative rival: “He’s got a car with his face on it.”

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Labour candidates can expect a small portion of funding from HQ, and if they’re lucky, support from a union, but otherwise they are on their own. Campaign funding platforms have stepped into the vacuum. Crowdpac matches potential individual donors with likeminded candidates – the Labour incumbent Peter Kyle is among those listed on the site. 

Another force for the first time in 2017 is More United, a movement to elect “progressive” MPs, which raises money from its members and then spends it on the campaigns of selected MPs. In the first four weeks of the general election campaign, it gave away £216,000 to 44 candidates from five parties, roughly half of which went to Labour candidates. 

More United chief executive Bess Mayhew told me: “We can change the outcome for many candidates in key seats this election.” She added: “We have supporters, we have money and we are giving people the power to change politics on a massive scale.”

Amna Ahmad, the Lib Dem candidate for Sutton and Cheam, received funding from More United. Such funding is particularly important for challenger candidates, she argued, because unlike incumbents they have no salary to sustain them. “I am a volunteer,” she said. “I had to give up my job [to campaign]. I am happy to do it, but if people are unable to pay their rent for a month or two and we want different people to get involved in politics, I think More United makes a difference. It makes a difference to know you’re funded.”

Ahmad is using some of the money she has received to spend on digital advertising on Facebook and Instagram.  As this suggests, while technology has paved the way for crowdfunding, it is also opening up new forms of spending. The challenge for candidates hoping to unseat the cash-rich Conservatives may become more acute, not less.