Thursday, 27 August 2009

The Ashcroft Connection

It wasn't just the membership figures which made interesting reading in the Tories' annual report for this constituency - there's a host of financial figures as well.

Given the largesse which has been distributed to a number of Tory constituency associations by Belize-based tycoon Lord Ashcroft, it's surprised me for some time that there has been no obvious connection between him and the Tories in this area.

I knew, of course, that they were not really short of a bob or two from fox-hunting hedge fund managers. Indeed, far from being financially challenged, their latest accounts show that they have a very healthy bank balance with £50,000 on deposit for a rainy day, and a further £35,000 in cash and bank accounts available to spend as and when they wish. It's the sort of resources which most parties in most constituencies can only dream of. Investment income alone contributes almost £4,000 to their annual income.

Nevertheless, pre-existing bank balances haven't stopped Lord Ashcroft 'investing' in a range of constituencies, and then keeping a close eye on what happens to his little investments. The noble lord himself may or may not be a tax exile; his party have consistently declined to confirm whether he is or is not a UK resident and tax-payer, as was promised at the time of his ennoblement. His donations are, however, all legal, of course. Although tax exiles cannot donate directly to political parties, UK-based companies can - and Lord Ashcroft seems to have a few convenient UK companies through which to channel his funding.

There are, as far as I can trace, no direct donations from Ashcroft to the Conservatives in Carmarthen West and South Pembs – none that have been declared to the Electoral Commission at any rate. It was interesting, therefore, to read in their annual report to the Electoral Commission that representatives from Lord Ashcroft's office regularly attended local campaign meetings. Perhaps some of the £8,600 which they received from HQ was actually Ashcroft money?

It surprised me that Ashcroft has 'an office' which can send staff to meetings all over the country. I assume that this is declared somewhere as a notional donation from one or other of his companies, but haven't so far been able to find it.

I'm jealous of their funding, of course – who wouldn't be? But my real concern is twofold. Firstly, no party should be able to try and 'buy' an election by out-resourcing its opponents. That's one of the worst aspects of US politics. And secondly, when campaigns are being funded on the back of anti-social behaviour such as short-selling bank shares and sterling, and possibly tax avoidance as well, it is simply not enough to say that 'it's within the rules'. As MPs of all parties have found out recently, that excuse simply won't wash – they need to be able to justify it in moral terms as well.

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