Labour sends `chain letter' to stars

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THE Labour Party is approaching its high-profile donors - including the singer Mick Hucknall, the actors Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack, the comedian Eddie Izzard and the Arts Council chief Gerry Robinson - asking them to find 10 rich friends who would be willing to give money.

The celebrities and businessmen who contributed substantial sums to Labour coffers in the run-up to the last election are being contacted to round up a group of sympathisers who can each give pounds 10,000 to the party's next war chest.

The "chain letter" strategy has been devised by the "high value" fund- raising department at Labour's Millbank Tower headquarters. It is based on the Tupperware party sales technique, through which people sell goods by inviting friends into their homes.

The Labour Party is facing such financial difficulty that it is also going to ask the trade unions to increase their contributions to its funds. Union leaders will be approached discreetly in the coming weeks by senior figures in the party and urged to boost their donations over the next two years to help Labour win a second term in power. The fund- raising department is planning a series of private drinks parties for trade unionists at Downing Street with Tony Blair, John Prescott or Gordon Brown, designed to prove that they are still valued by New Labour - despite the Government's reluctance to meet all their demands on employment rights.

At the same time, the Labour Party is launching a new campaign to clamp down on members who have not paid their subscriptions. A black-tie gala dinner is also being held in London this week to raise money.

Labour funds slumped to a record deficit of pounds 4.5m after the 1997 election. Although some money has been clawed back since then, insiders acknowledge that the party's bank balance is far from healthy and will be further hit by expensive campaigns for the Scottish, Welsh, local council and European elections over the next few months.

Despite controversy over huge donations from rich individuals before the last election - such as the pounds 1m contribution from Bernie Ecclestone which the party was told to pay back to the Formula One boss after claims that he had influenced policy - Labour is still focusing its attention on millionaires.

"While we have learned the lessons from the Bernie Ecclestone affair, we are not embarrassed about going to successful people and asking them to support us with significant contributions," one insider said.

Fund-raisers are now going back to people who have given large amounts of money in the past, asking them to give again and to exploit their contacts to secure other donations. Mr Blair and other ministers will be deployed to ask the biggest donors for extra cash.

Strategists believe that this tactic will enable the party to access money from each community and extend its network through different worlds. "It is better for a businessman to ask other businessmen for money, or for an actor to ask other actors," one source said.