Labour Party Conference Diary: Is the party really so strapped for cash it needs Philip Morris's tobacco cash?

 

The Labour Party’s finances are perennially in a bad way and are fated to get worse as Ed Miliband alters the rules for union affiliation. The latest set of accounts shows that in 2012, the party did at least manage to live within its means. Income exceeded expenditure by £2.8 million, but was with trade unions affiliating to the tune of almost £8 million. How much of that will still come in when the party is collecting directly from union members rather than through their subs, we have yet to find out. Also, the party has debts exceeding £13 million, mainly a hangover from the last general election, a figure almost equal to its entire assets.

Consequently, Labour badly needs the precious thousands they can earn by renting out commercial stalls at their annual conference. But one stall in particular is not universally welcomed. That is the one hired by the tobacco firm, Philip Morris.

The Labour government banned smoking in public buildings, including pubs, and tobacco advertising and the Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham has hinted that a Labour government may force cigarettes to be sold in plain packets. It seems odd, therefore, that the party should be accepting a wodge of money from a firm of cigarette makers.

Dianne Abbott, the shadow health minister, voiced her disapproval at a fringe meeting in Brighton. “On selling exhibition space to big tobacco, the health team led by Andy Burnham did make representations to the party about this and we were not able to get that changed,” she said. “But the health team is not happy.”

***

Labour was humiliated on the opening day of its conference when it was beaten four nil in the annual football match against lobby journalists. All four goals were scored by the lobby’s star striker, Sky cameraman, Ramzi Bedj. The Labour team were at a temporary disadvantage when Ed Balls was called off the pitch to be interviewed by 5 Live. One of Bedj’s goals was scored in his absence, but not even his loyal spinners claim that was a decisive moment in the match. The lobby team was captained, as it has been for several years, by Patrick Hennessy – despite the fact that only last week he quit journalism to work for Ed Miliband. He will not be captaining the Lobby team again.

***

The ongoing row over the serialisation of the memoirs of Gordon Brown’s former attack dog, Damian McBride, is like white noise that makes it difficult to focus on the official business at the Labour Party conference. McBride has made himself a byword for the practice of secretly trashing the reputations of political rivals who are supposedly on your own side.

One person who can feel vindicated by the unfolding saga is Alistair Darling. The former Chancellor had claimed that he tried to get McBride sacked before he did any more damage. That has now been confirmed by none other than McBride in person, who tweeted:  “He complained about me and told Gordon to get rid. Quite right too.”

Meanwhile that other Alastair (different spelling) – Alastair Campbell – is seething about the way the story is being played. In presenting extracts from the McBride book, the Daily Mail has implied that Gordon Brown needed McBride, because Tony Blair had Alastair Campbell.

That misses the point. Campbell was a combative fellow, but he did not habitually do what McBride has admitted doing: he did secretly and maliciously brief against government ministers or civil servants. At least not often: it is generally believed that in one exasperated moment he complained that Brown had “psychological flaws” – but that was not his normal method of operating. He is, after all, the model for that comic monster Malcolm Tucker, who did not shy about telling people what he thought of them to their faces.

***

Ed Miliband, appearing on the Andrew Marr programme, promised a crackdown on “train companies and others who are actually taking people for a ride under this government.” Er, Ed, aren’t train companies supposed to take people for a ride?

Ian Katz, editor of Newsnight, tweets to say that Monday night’s Newsnight will be “one to stay in for” featuring, as it does, Rachel Reeves. Yes, that’s Rachel ‘boring, snoring’ Reeves, according to an earlier tweet from the same Mr Katz. He has obviously improved his manners in the intervening week.

***

Congratulations to 11 separate constituency Labour parties, mostly from London but including Telford, Great Grimsby and Pendle, for arriving at the Labour conference armed with a policy suggestion that directly addresses the concerns of families with young children. Bring in free school meals, they proposed. Not their fault that Nick Clegg got that one in first.

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