The People's Party rolls out the red carpet for the rich

Paul Routledge attempts to explain why Tony Blair's Government is going out of its way to suck up to the wealthy
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The Independent Online
It Used to be thought that the rich could enter the Kingdom of Heaven more easily than they could insinuate themselves into the affections of the Labour Party. Nowadays, the eye of this particular needle has become elastic. The brothers have convinced themselves that they are not ashamed of wealth. In fact, they rather like it.

Unfortunately, wealth is inseparable (quite literally) from the wealthy. You do not get the money without the moneybags, and their altruism comes at a price. The Formula One affair, which found Tony Blair in the dock apologising for his Government's cack-handed behaviour over the exemption of motor racing from the ban on tobacco sponsorship after accepting a million pounds from F1 promoter Bernie Ecclestone, demonstrated that Labour's love affair with the rich is fraught with danger. The string of revelations about Paymaster-General Geoffrey Robinson's wealth, his offshore trust and his exotic life style have added to the unease. Yet the richest female Labour arriviste in the Commons, Fiona MacTaggart, was last week appointed to the lowest rung of government as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in succession to an MP sacked for rebelling over the cuts in benefits for lone parents. Boodle, it seems, is no bar to promotion.

Why should the People's Party be so attracted to money? Are they not the champions of the poor and the downtrodden? And what attracts the rich to Labour? The questions are new, but the answers are probably not. There is a long and honourable tradition of wealthy philanthropists who supported social reform, stretching back to the co-operative pioneer Robert Owen in the 19th century. Labour was not slow to capitalise on its appeal to the rich in the years after the First World War, when it began to look like a party of government. Ramsay MacDonald captured the wallets, if not the hearts, of the aristocracy.

In the aftermath of Labour's 1945 landslide, some seriously rich folk were Labour, most notably the millionaire Harold Lever, a senior minister who occasionally allowed his Eaton Square home to be used as a discreet venue for union leaders to talk to employers with whom they were in dispute. One gnarled veteran of the Labour movement observed that Lever lived rather well, and wondered why could his members could not live like that. "But you see," said Lever, "there's only one of me. There are 100,000 of them."

It is sometimes forgotten that Harold Wilson knighted the billionaire Sir James Goldsmith. Nye Bevan took lavish cash gifts from "friends" to finance his indulgent way of life.

What is new perhaps, is the scale of the individual donations to the party, and the institutionalised form that wealth-to- Labour is now taking. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, benefited from substantial gifts to their private offices during the years of opposition. Geoffrey Robinson also funded research into Labour's plans to raid the profits of the privatised utilities, and pumped pounds 1m into the ailing New Statesman. Labour also brazenly went out to attract the rich, with expensive pounds 500 or pounds 1,000 a head dinners in London's swankiest hotels, targeted particularly at media tyros such as Greg Dyke and Michael Levy. And this year, the party chalked up its first million-pound donors - first Bernie Ecclestone, and then when the party was told to return the cash by "sleazebuster" Sir Patrick Neill, from Robert Earl, the Planet Hollywood tycoon with a personal wealth of at least pounds 400m.

Earl's gift marks something of a watershed. He is a member of the Labour Party, but he lives in Orlando, Florida, and he did not even vote in the general election.

His public relations mouthpiece, Matthew Freud, argues that Earl gave his money to Labour because he supports the Government. "His overriding feeling is that the Prime Minister should not be concerned with problems relating to party finance, and if he is able to assist and in doing so allow the PM to get on with the job he is paid to do, then that is very much supporting the Government. His perception was that they had a problem, and he was in a position to help." The timing and size of his pounds 1m cheque were directly related to Blair's Formula One difficulties, he admitted.

Gifts on this scale are plainly linked to Labour's social programme. More than anything, money likes stability, and the Blair administration does promise to make Britain a more cohesive and stable society. The rich, many of whom did so well out of the divisive Thatcher years, may now be feeling rather guilty, and certainly apprehensive at the growth of social exclusion that threatens their way of life. There is also the beguiling prospect of influencing, even at arm's length, the shape of government policy.

Over time, the wealthy could even eclipse the role of the trade unions in financing Labour, a development that some influential figures like Peter Mandelson, the Minister without Portfolio (who is at home with the well-heeled) would welcome. The impact of such a development on the direction of the party could scarcely be exaggerated.