Osborne’s local giveaways: blatant pork-barrel politics?

Labour attacks funding of local causes in marginal seats where coalition MPs are trying to save their bacon

The Mole

A hand-out of £250,000 for researching kebab-snatching urban seagulls is being seen by Labour as evidence that the Chancellor indulged in pork-barrel politics in Wednesday’s Budget in a bid to help Tory and Lib Dem candidates who are fighting marginal seats.

The seagull study was ordered after demands for action by a string of West Country coalition MPs, led by Lib Dem MP Don Foster who is defending a 11,883 majority in the Georgian spa town of Bath.

The Treasury has denied it was an election bribe. It says there have been “reports of seagulls stealing people’s kebabs” and that the menace of urban seagull attacks is widespread. David Cameron told the Western Morning News yesterday that a seagull had once stolen the ham out of his sandwich.

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But the seagull study is not the only hand-out contained in Osborne’s Budget that clearly benefits a marginal seat: there’s a whiff of pork coming from plenty of other projects designed to make a splash in coalition marginals.

Some of the giveaways were announced in Osborne’s Commons speech, others were hidden in the small print. One or two – including the seagull research project - were not even mentioned in the Budget ‘Red Book’ and have only become apparent through local media coverage.

Osborne doled out cash for the renovation of the RAF museum at Hendon, where Tory Matthew Offord is defending a gossamer-thin majority of 106.

Gavin Barwell, a former Tory press officer who is defending Croydon Central (majority 2,969), was delighted to secure £7m for the Croydon Growth Zone.

Tory MP Andrew Stephenson, defending a 3,500 majority in Pendle, Lancashire, was thrilled to see £56,000 going to upgrade his local theatre.

Osborne also extended eight enterprise zones, including Blackpool where the Tories are targeting Blackpool South (Lab maj 1,852) and trying to defend Blackpool North from Labour (Con maj 2,150).

Lib Dems in Wales cheered when Osborne announced negotiations for the Cardiff Bay tidal lagoon for green energy and a cut in toll rates on the Severn River crossings.

The Treasury insists all these local projects have to pass a value-for-money test, but Labour suspicions have been fuelled by the non-appearance of some of the measures in the ‘Red Book’. The counter-seagull study emerged only after Foster issued a press release to welcome it.

The Financial Times has found 16 examples of where MPs in marginal seats have been offered assistance in the form of direct funding, housing or enterprise zones.

And that is not counting today’s announcement of Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ initiative which is intended to improve rail links between northern cities - and answer the charge that Cameron and Osborne have neglected the North.

Jon Ashworth, Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister, told the FT: “The Tories’ campaign is already awash with their donors’ cash and now it seem taxpayers’ money is being pumped into Tory key seats. This is pork-barrel politics at its worst.”

Alistair Darling, the former Labour chancellor, tells the FT Labour never indulged in such blatant pre-election spending. It was “bad politics to give every impression that you are reaching into the pork barrel,” he said. “Fixing a church roof isn’t going to suddenly make anyone vote Conservative.”

Darling has clearly had a bout of amnesia. Perhaps the most glaring example of election bribery in recent years was the Labour promise to build the Humber Bridge to win a by-election at Hull North in 1966.

NOTE: The term ‘pork-barrel politics’ is better known in the United States, where it became common in the 1870s. The phrase is thought to have its roots in the pre-Civil War practice of giving a barrel of salt pork as a reward to slaves, who then had to compete among themselves to get their share.

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is the pseudonym for a London-based political consultant who writes exclusively for The Week.co.uk.