Can Brown maintain union funding AND stop Ashcroft?

Can Brown maintain union funding AND stop Ashcroft?

    Is party funding about to become the next battle-ground?

michael ashcroft RH.JPGThis is Michael Ashcroft who in this year’s Sunday Times Rich List was placed in position 87 with an estimated wealth of £800m.

He’s a major donor to the Tory party and before the 2005 general election, as was reported here, he hand-picked a group of Tory candidates in marginal constituencies and then was responsible for providing extra attention and funding to help them with their campaigns.

This morning he is he main focus of a Labour attack. In a GMTV interview the chief whip, Geoff Hoon, is calling for restraints to be placed on money being spent in constituencies in the years up to a general election and not, like at present, just during the campaign itself.

This is going to be tricky territory for Labour – for as soon as they raise the party finding issue out comes the Tory proposal that there should be a £50,000 cap on all donations which would apply to each trade union as well.

This could have a devastating effect on the party which still looks to the unions for a large part of their funding.

The Tories are defending the selective constituency support by pointing to the allowances of upto £40,000 a year that sitting MPs can spend promoting themselves locally. Although Tory MPs benefit as well they hold far fewer seats.

Ashcroft said last week that “In the 100 or so marginal Labour-held seats that will determine the outcome of the next election, sitting Labour MPs in effect have a £4m-a-year head start.

Brown could use his majority in the commons to force through legislation that protected Labour’s funding sources but impeded the Tories. This, however, has big political risks. It’s not long since there was the “cash for honours” row and being seen to act partially in this manner might not go down well.

Brown also has a problem that in such an argument there’s a dearth of articulate Labour spokesmen who can put a case lucidly and effectively. As I have noted before most of the heavy hitters from the Blair era are no longer there.

Mike Smithson

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