An uneven playing field: Tories winning general election cash battle

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives emerge from this week's party funding revelations looking very pretty – but a gap is emerging in how much cash they'll reap from their questionable fundraising.

Both parties bend the rules of acceptability because they are desperate for funds. It's the fuel they need to pay for their general election campaign; those glossy leaflets stuffed through your letterbox cost a lot, you know.

And so the race for cash intensifies at this time of the electoral cycle. In the last 24 hours we've seen fresh revelations about both sides. The Tories rely on wealthy individuals to bankroll their campaign; Labour need the unions just as much as ever. Nothing's changed, but their activities appear to be becoming more brazen.

Take the Conservatives' 2013 Summer Party. Its seating plan, auction catalogue and briefing notes were kept top secret until they found their way into the hands of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It has revealed there's a reason the Tories didn't want you knowing how these events work. From shale gas investor Howard Shore hosting the prime minister's table, via transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin sitting with shipping magnates, to an odd concentration of businessmen linked to Russia talking with Boris Johnson, the contacts – paid for with £12,000 tickets – are deeply uncomfortable. Any one of them would be a decent news story in their own right. Jon Ashworth, Labour's shadow Cabinet minister, says: "These reports further lift the lid on a party which is bankrolled by and stands up for a privileged few."

Then there's Labour, which – despite Ed Miliband's bold move to shake up the way the party's funded – is still as reliant as ever on funding from Unite. Len McCluskey's union confirmed earlier this week it will provide large dollops of cash to help the Labour campaign. And now the price for his help is becoming clear. A recording passed to the Telegraph newspaper shows assistant general secretary Steve Turner informing a Unite audience the union is seeking a "secretary of state for a Ministry of Labour". Separately, the Financial Times reports Unite is demanding that Miliband accepts Cameron's calls for an in-out referendum on the EU. Grant Shapps, the Tory party chairman, says: "Ed Miliband promised to wean himself off these Union bosses, but he has been too weak to deliver."

Both deserve criticism, so they dole it out to each other in spades. The public can be forgiven for thinking the less of each of them. But they accept it – in part, surely, because the negativity is so easily balanced out.

This doesn't mean there can't be a clear winner, though. It may be a score-draw in terms of the overall damage done to each party, but that doesn't mean the levels of cash to be gained are even.

"In terms in spending, yes, they will have more money than us," a Labour source has told today's Times. The newspaper reports Miliband's party could find itself outspent by as much as 300% next year.

"We can't match their kind of spending. We do not have two dozen people in the City in hedge funds who can give us huge amounts of money… the Tories will probably outspend us two or three to one from January 2015 onwards.

"The investment in field operations and digital is how we are going to fight this campaign. A lot of that is unseen — it is not flashy, like the big poster launches. It is not about hiring helicopters, but it is very effective."

Labour's willingness to place its trust in technology – the kinds of innovations brought by high-profile Obama hire David Axelrod – is something of a leap of faith. It will be tested next May. But already the gap is widening. The Conservatives are expected to easily reach the £19.5 million spending limit in the 12 months before the election. Labour won't get anywhere close.