The title of this post comes from a piece in today’s Guardian by New Statesman Editor John Kampfner. He writes:
"In April, the New Statesman reported figures that should send a chill down Labour spines. Of the 36 Tory gains last time around, 24 had been targeted by a consortium of high-value donors coordinated by Ashcroft, who is not only chief fundraiser but also party deputy chairman with special responsibility for target seats. And, as every election observer knows, elections are won and lost by a democratically unrepresentative number of floating voters in a small number of constituencies. It would not take a large swing for many of these seats to change hands. The Conservatives have quietly been pouring money into them. Much of their work is below the radar – telephone and online canvassing."
Martin Bright, the New Statesman’s Political Editor, wrote the original New Statesman article on the back of research by ousted Labour MP Peter Bradley: "Of the 36 [Tory] gains, 24 had been targeted by the [Ashcroft] consortium. In some seats, such as Bradley’s own, the Conservatives outspent Labour tenfold." Mr Bradley and Michael Ashcroft go back some way. Using parliamentary privilege Bradley made cowardly allegations against the Tory Treasurer in 1999 but was unwilling to repeat them outside of the Commons.
Saturday’s Independent reported that Harriet Harman, Deputy Labour leader, wants changes to electoral law to stop Lord Ashcroft providing uncapped funding for candidates in between elections. Lord Ascroft’s marginal seats team were recently brought inside CCHQ after operating independently in the run up to the last General election. His strategy of funding activity well before election times undoubtedly helps candidates build up their local standing but some have complained to ConservativeHome that the conditions attached to his funding restrict their ability to campaign on, for example, core vote issues.
Party Treasurer Ashcroft saved the Conservative Party from financial disaster in the 1997 to 2001 period and many candidates are grateful for his funding of marginal seats but there must be anxiety that any one individual can enjoy such power in our party. In addition to oversight of marginal seats he also has responsibilities for youth, polling and ‘Campaign North’. He has something of his own political agenda as set out in Smell The Coffee, his post-2005 election diagnosis of the Tory problem. David Cameron has rightly advocated a cap on individual donations – a position publicly opposed by Ashcroft. Only a cap on donations (and on state funding of politics) will encourage the sort of retail fundraising that reconnects a party with real voters.