Friday, March 31, 2006


How Tory Fat Cats bank-roll candidates in key marginals

It's salutary to realise something you always thought to be the case just isn't. For example I had thought election expenses were well policed in this country and that the few freebies like the freepost election statement plus the allowed expenditure per capita amount for candidates -7p per voter?- was a fine demonstration of how democracy was not as sullied by money as it is in, say, the USA. Here, of course, candidates spend millions upon millions on short 'attack' ads which pollute and demean the whole discourse of political debate.

So I found it hard to believe Conservative fat cats had been bankrolling candidates in key marginals at the last election. Michael White in today's Guardian addresses the subject. Grant Shapps, for example, MP for Welwyn Hatfield, spent £180,382 in 2005 as against the £14,875 spent by his opponent, Melanie Johnson. A sizeable chunk of Shapps' money came via his party's former treasurer, the hugely wealthy Lord Michael Ashcroft. This money was distributed by the Belizean to candidates he thought promising and was not, it appears, sanctioned by Central Office.

In all £1.3 million was directed in this way from three rich donors. Several of the 23 seats won from Labour were recipients of this new form of largesse. Peter Bradley, former MP for the Wrekin, lost out to Mark Pritchard, who received sums of £23,133 from Lord Steinberg and £32,609 from Robert Edmiston, whose proposed peerage was queried by the Lords Appointment Commission.

But surely, you say, you can't do this in Britain's tightly controlled election finance regime? Well, you can, providing you do not spend it during the campaign- in the case of 2005, between the dates 11th April to 5th May. If you spend the cash before that period you are perfectly legal. This development indicates a couple of things:
i) the advantage of incumbency is reduced via such money. If a candidate has the resources he/she can match the publicity seeking activities of the sitting MP, or, indeed, exceed them.

ii) we probably need to introduce some legal controls over spending between elections as well to maintain at least the semblance of a level playing field.

iii)this degree and manner of financing makes the candidate more indpendent of party HQ. In the USA candidates can decide to run, can win primaries to become a party's nominee, raise money for their own campaigns, choose the staff and get elected, all virtually without party involvement. Maybe we are seeing the beginnings of something similar here, though it has to be said that our party machines are still hegemonic compared to the US.

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Ashcroft's reasons for funding the campaign against Peter Bradley were motivated by pure spite. In his biography Ashcroft admits to be 'delighted' on hearing about Peter's defeat - all because Peter dared to question whether Ashcroft was a suitable candidate for the Lords.

PS - what on earth is the previous post on about?
thanks for that- I wasn't aware of the back story.
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