Manhattan swings to Labour

Party donations from across the pond may be a drop in the ocean, but champagne socialists among the elite of British expats are doing their bit for Tony, says David Usborne
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A bash is planned for the night of 1 May in New York, and the host will be the Labour Party, United States branch. I hope to be there. The evening, aided by a satellite TV link-up to London, should be fizz-popping fun. And you have to applaud the choice of venue - the popular retro-Bolshie Pravda bar in modish SoHo. Comrades, count me in!

The joke is a good one, given what the branch has been up to of late. Aided by such luminary Manhattan tea-bags as Harry Evans, once of The Times and now of Random House, his New Yorker-editing wife, Tina Brown, and New York's leading Brit restaurateur, Brian McNally, they have been sending two commodities to the Labour troops back home - dollars and, above all, American glam.

It is an unprecedented effort that has raised brows on both sides of the water. "Cocktail Socialists Toast Tony Blair", yells the current edition of the weekly New York Observer beneath a cartoon of Tina, Harold, Brian and others among "Tony's rousers" sipping bubbly beneath a portrait of Queen Victoria. "Brit Bigs in US Pitch in for Tony", ran one headline in the gossip pages of the New York Post.

Tongues have also been stirred in the House of Commons. Trying early last month to deflect allegations of illegal foreign fund-raising by the Tories, John Major - either desperate or ill-served by a briefing paper - wrongly accused Labour of "canvassing abroad for resources" from Americans.

In fact, no American nationals have been solicited for money; only enfranchised Britons in the US (of which there are some 2.5 million, including 200,000 in New York). Nor are we talking about a pipeline from Battery Park to Walworth Road flowing with greenbacks like oil from a gusher.

What has happened is really a meeting of New York (or, rather, the Anglophilic media elite of Manhattan) and New Labour. Seeing the Blair bus on the horizon back home and doubtless feeling a twinge of longing, even envy, Mr Evans and his friends recognised an opportunity to get themselves a ticket to ride. With their multiple connections, they felt able to stir up some tinsel and some dollars for Blair.

We should not now omit to mention the (repeatedly denied) Evans-Brown rumours. The pair are a fixture in New York's gossip constellation; recently all we have heard about is their alleged yearning to return to a New Labour Britain. Could Evans, still puckish at 68, even be ingratiating himself for a Blair appointment? A nice culture-type post, perhaps. The speculation was fuelled by remarks a while ago by Ms Brown to the effect that she had grown tired of America's dollar culture and considered Britain the cultural hothouse of the world.

Were we, in accordance with Upper East Side custom, to put Harry, Tina and their friends on the psychiatrist's couch, we might even explore one possible irony here and a conundrum. The end of the Tory era that began in 1979 would rob them of the political rationale for their presence in America. Harry fled Rupert Murdoch and what he did to the Times titles, but he also fled Thatcherism. If Blair wins, the bearings of some Brits here, especially in literary and arts circles, would suddenly be skewed.

It was Harry and his connections who helped kick off the activities all the way back in September. Either he or Random House paid for a cosy breakfast, attended by a coterie of British reporters and guest of honour John Prescott at the "44" restaurant inside the media-beloved Royalton Hotel on 44th Street. Tina was there, carefully placed a few seats from Prescott. It helped that the "44" is McNally's place (as it no doubt will that brother Keith owns the Pravda).

By February, letters were mailed in New York and beyond to influential expat Brits asking for money. At the end of the month came the branch's big night - a swell evening of canapes and well-charged glasses at the not-so-proletarian Century Club (thank you Century member Harry) enjoyed by about 125 guests, some of them expats but also a good selection of American society and Wall Street shakers, including investment banker Felix Rohatyn, rumoured to be Paris-bound as Bill Clinton's choice as new US ambassador to France, and historian Arthur Schlesinger. The star turns of the evening, however, were Gordon Brown and Glenda Jackson.

Gordon and Glenda both spoke and Tina and Harry circulated, as they do most nights of the week. So too did Bianca Jagger. The night generated those helpful, New Labour-sparkles-abroad headlines. And it helped to fill those collection plates.

Ask Chris Jones, a former merchant banker resident in New York and secretary of the US branch just how much money has been raised and he goes slightly coy. The media attention has driven expectations far too high (where, for instance, did The Observer get $1m?) The total - including small amounts being gathered by five other Labour Party branches around the US - may just reach pounds 10,000. "We're talking about a modest amount of money," says Jones. "It's nothing that is going to buy a media campaign in the UK."

The money is not, in fact, being decanted into the great vat of campaign funding at Walworth Road. Rather, it is being given to help the candidates in four constituencies considered key to a Labour victory. Two weeks ago, Mr Jones, in Britain on business, presented a cheque for pounds 525 to Chris Mann, the Labour candidate in Brecon & Radnorshire in Wales. "It is a very nice way to deliver the message that Labour friends in New York, Washington, Boston or Los Angeles are looking out for candidates in Cleethorpes, or Aberdeen or wherever," Jones says. Other constituencies receiving US- raised funds are Aberdeen South, Mitcham & Morden and Oldham East & Saddleworth.

Getting expats in the US to register and to vote has also been part of the exercise. Mr Jones likes to point out that it was Baroness Thatcher, early in her premiership, who passed legislation allowing Britons abroad to exercise their vote by postal ballot. Indeed, she once held a Tory fundraiser among expat Brits in Dallas. "She thought that everyone who went abroad would somehow be monied and cosmopolitan and natural conservatives," says Jones, "but that is so completely outmoded. We know there are all sorts of people in the international environment who support Labour."

Not everyone has taken the hi-jacking of the Labour Party in New York by Mr Evans and his friends entirely in their stride. Richard Lay, a press director for the branch and a playwright in New York, acknowledges that the champagne-socialism image rankles with many original branch members. But he accepts it: "We love them dearly and this has been great - it has just fallen into our laps. Five years ago, on election night, we were a few guys in cloth caps and a dog camping out at the British consulate."

It is with a little bite in his tone, however, that he looks forward to our night at Pravda. "We'll drink some vodka and some of us might try a rendition of 'The Red Flag'. But instead of cloth caps, we'll be wearing fedoras."