The Tories may have the highest income - and historically have been able to count on more cash than their rivals at election time - but they are now paying the price for running up a huge overdraft in the early Nineties. While they grapple to bring it down, Labour is putting millions aside for the next general election. Accounts released to party delegates in Brighton for the annual conference this week show that Tony Blair has had a galvanising effect on the party's financial as well as political fortunes.
Last year, delegates are told, Labour's general election fighting fund doubled to pounds 4.5m. The Tories, who meet next week in Blackpool, will be exhorted by their leaders to try even harder. Their accounts show a good surplus in their last financial year of pounds 2.95m but that came at the expense of further cuts at Central Office and they offer no indication of where the cash for the next general election, now less than two years away, will come from.
All three parties are overdrawn. The Tories pared pounds 4.5m off their deficit last year which now stands at pounds 11.37m; Labour has cut its deficit from a peak of pounds 2.5m in 1992 to the present pounds 1.1m, while the Liberal Democrats have reduced their overdraft to pounds 150,000.
Despite that, the Liberal Democrats remain the poor relation. Unlike Labour, their work for the general election, to quote the chair of the party's finance committee, Tim Clement-Jones, is already "stretching our fund-raising capacity to the limit". While their accounts are in good shape, the party needs every extra penny they can get if they are to fight the next election on anything remotely approaching a level playing field - hence initiatives such as targeting Asian businesses for support.
While the Liberal Democrats have not put a foot wrong politically, the three parties' accounts show it is power or the real prospect of power that brings in the money. In a year of sleaze, splits over Europe and plunging poll ratings, the Tories still brought in pounds 12.7m of donations, an increase of 35 per cent. As ever, the party stoically refuses to break that down between companies and individuals. While supporters still seem happy to pay, the Tories' dismal political performance may account for a slump in takings from the sale of books and souvenirs - a major factor in a pounds 900,000 drop in sundry income. A resurgent Labour, by contrast, saw its earnings from publications more than double, from pounds 131,000 to pounds 335,000.
With Labour having almost doubled its membership to 350,000 since Mr Blair took over, his party is clearly riding the crest of a financial wave. Even so, he ignores the unions at his peril. They still account for about half of total income. As for all those people rushing to join, they do not come cheap. In the accounts,expenditure on "membership processing" has gone up from pounds 547,000 to pounds 605,000.
The worry for the Tories is that while they have slashed the Central Office operation to the bone, it still eats money. Massively unpopular with the constituencies - last year almost 500 local associations failed to pay their full Central Office quotas with more than a dozen contributing nothing at all - staff costs at Smith Square continue to rise, up from pounds 5.7m to pounds 5.9m last year.
As delegates gather in Brighton and Blackpool, they might reflect that they are making a vital contribution to party coffers. Annual conferences have become a vital part of the political year - not just for buoying up delegates and guaranteeing a media platform for a week. They are also big business. In 1993, Labour made a total profit of pounds 26,000 from its conference.
Last year, in Blackpool with Mr Blair, it made pounds 119,000. This week's profits should be even higher.
How the main parties are funded
subscriptions pounds 2.37m
Unions pounds 4.32m
Other sources pounds 2.23m
Total income pounds 8.92m
Expenditure : pounds 8.48m
Surplus pounds 0.44m
General Election fund pounds 4.5m
Overdraft pounds 1.1m
Donations pounds 12.73m
Constituencies pounds 0.86m
Other sources pounds 1.71m
Total income pounds 15.30m
Expenditure pounds 12.35m
Surplus pounds 2.95m
General Election Fund N/A
Overdraft pounds 11.38m
Donations pounds 0.59m
Levies from English, Scottish and Welsh branches pounds 0.46m
Other sources pounds 0.26m
Total income pounds 1.31m
Expenditure pounds 1.31m
Surplus pounds 0.005m
General Election fund N/A
Overdraft pounds 0.15mReuse content