Funding scandals hurt Cameron more than rival Labour, poll shows

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By Andrew Osborn

LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives have been the most hurt by a string of unflattering disclosures about how and by whom Britain's political parties are funded, a poll showed on Monday, less than three months before a close national election.

The issue has dominated pre-election debate in recent weeks after a scandal about possible tax avoidance at HSBC's Swiss banking arm when it became public that some of the account holders funded the Conservatives or the opposition Labour Party.

The furore has put the right-leaning Conservatives in the spotlight, given the party is funded predominantly by business people. Left-wing Labour remains heavily reliant on trade unions.

Both accuse the other of being in the pockets of their respective backers. Labour says the Conservatives tailor tax rates to suit their donors, while Cameron's party accuses Labour of letting the unions buy its policies and leaders.

A YouGov poll published on Monday showed that public discussion of the issue was hurting Cameron's party more though, months before an election which many polls suggest Labour and the Conservatives could tie or fail to win convincingly.

It showed 47 percent of voters deemed the way the Conservatives were funded as "dodgy," an accusation first made in parliament by Labour leader Ed Miliband.

By contrast, 33 percent, or 14 percentage points less, judged Labour's funding arrangements "dodgy and disreputable."

"Both sides are suffering from this issue being on the public's mind, but it's hitting the Tories (Conservatives) harder," said YouGov's Stephan Shakespeare.

Cameron was embarrassed last week by an admission from Stanley Fink, one of the HSBC account holders, a backer, and a former Conservative treasurer, that he had avoided tax as "everyone does."

Although Fink's use of family trusts was perfectly legal, his words were a gift to Labour. The party has tried to cast the Conservatives and Cameron, a descendant of King William IV and an alumnus of elite Eton College, as privileging the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

Cameron denies that, but a fundraising dinner for the Conservatives in London last week which auctioned off prizes like a session shoe shopping in an upmarket store with the female interior minister handed Labour more ammunition.

British newspapers have since publicised several cases of possible tax avoidance involving business people who donate to Labour too, and the tax affairs of Miliband, Labour's leader, have come under scrutiny in relation to his late father's will.

YouGov's poll, which was weighted, surveyed 1,620 British adults and was conducted from Feb. 12-13.

(Editing by Toby Chopra)

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