Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ashcroft Campaign Merely Levels the Playing Field

The power of incumbency for MPs is huge - and growing. So it is a little galling to hear Labour MPs bleating on about Michael Ashcroft's funding the Conservatives' target seat campaign. Rob Halfon, Tory candidate for Harlow, tackles this in a letter to The Guardian today...
Complaints about Michael Ashcroft funding marginal seats is really just a
Labour red herring (Tories surge past Labour after election dithering, October
12). As a prospective parliamentary candidate fighting to overturn a Labour
majority of just 97, I am faced with a huge inbuilt disadvantage. Not only does
the MP have £18,000 of taxpayer funds annually to "communicate" with the
electorate (not forgetting the £10,000 bonus recently added), he or she also has
£7,000 postal expenses and a fully staffed office also paid for by the taxpayer.
My MP regularly writes letters to members of the public. So, with a £28,000
annual communications allowance, a huge postage allowance and trade union funds,
Labour MPs have an automatic head start over any challenger. Support from
Ashcroft and others to Conservative parliamentary candidates merely levels the
playing field.
Robert Halfon, Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate,
Harlow


Rob's experience is typical of many. What he doesn't mention is the money which trade unions funnell into constituency Labour parties, which also tilt the balance. The attempt by Labour MPs to persuade Gordon Brown to legislate to prevent the Michael Ashcrofts of this world funding campaigns in certain seats and overseeing a national campaign is nothing short of scandalous. They need to look at their own actions in voting themselves £10k of YOUR money to publicise themselves. That is the true scandal.

Declaration of interest: I received £10K from Lord Ashcroft during the runup to the last general election when I was a candidate - and am proud to call him a friend.

42 comments:

David Boothroyd said...

No, it is this argument that is the red herring. The incumbent MP is allowed postage costs for Parliamentary work because they have constituents coming to them with problems who need to be informed about what the MP does, and also about ongoing issues. MPs cannot use free Parliamentary postage for campaigning.

The Communications Allowance is there because there is a general feeling the electorate does not know enough about what MPs are doing. Telling their constituents what they are doing is quite different from campaigning. I also do not notice my Conservative MP refusing to use this money.

Trade unions funds derive from the democratic decisions of their members to have a political fund and to pay into it, and then from the union's decision where to spend the money. This is quite different from a single eccentric rich man like Lord Ashcroft using his own money to buy an election. The Conservative belief that they should be treated the same way is a striking example of that party's fundamental lack of understanding of trade unions. If donations are capped, then the cap that applies to trade unions should be multiplied by the number of individual members of the union.

It used to be the case that money spent outside election periods was still counted towards the expense limit if it was part of that specific election campaign. The restriction to election campaigns has created a loophole which Ashcroft is exploiting. It needs shutting.

David Lindsay said...

I deplore the activities of Lord Ashcroft, but Labour has a standing offer to fund its entire General Election campaign from Lord Paul, who has the money to spare, since he is a non-domicile. Isn't democracy grand?

Anonymous said...

Surely, as there is little prospect of any such legislation reaching the statute book before the next election, there's no point in worrying about it. It's just the NuLab bully boys posturing - and running scared; same thing.

strapworld said...

Iain,

Rob's letter is spot on. Yet would it not be a very good idea for Cameron et al to consider pledging that he will stop MP's having such an advantage and removing the ability to use taxpayers money for personal useage. (Although I am sure the Labour Government will then find some Tory MP's who have abused the system).

Also please explain to me WHY the Liberal Democrats are treated as equal partners in a general election, by the same number of Party Political Broadcats etc etc. Surely in a democratic society ALL candidates and ALL parties (however repugnant) should be treated equally?

Let the Conservatives bring REAL Democracy back and so bring more respect back to politics and politicians!

David Boothroyd said...

Actually the Lib Dems get four election broadcasts, Labour and Conservatives five. Everyone else gets one. (I think the SNP and Plaid Cymru get four in their own countries but I could be wrong)

machiavelli said...

"What he doesn't mention is the money which trade unions funnell into constituency Labour parties" He does actually...

There's another point that you forgot to mention Iain; the in-built and massive disadvantage that the Conservatives have through the constituency boundaries. As you said yourself the other day regarding the ICM poll putting the Tories 7 points ahead of Labour: "This would give the Conservatives a single figure majority and demonstartes how badly the electoral system is stacked against the Tories."

So that's yet another unlevel playing field that Michael Ashcroft's funding will go a small way towards levelling...

P.S. David Boothroyd - "The Communications Allowance is there because there is a general feeling the electorate does not know enough about what MPs are doing". Watch out for those flying pigs, mate.

Chuck Unsworth said...

@ David Boothroyd "MPs cannot use free Parliamentary postage for campaigning"

Perhaps we ought to rephrase that as 'are not allowed to' - or maybe you are prepared to personally vouch that this does not happen?

Unfortunately the electorate knows quite clearly what MPs are doing - and have shunned them.

I'd like some clarity as to the difference between 'telling constituents what they are doing' and 'campaigning'. Would you care to offer a definition of both activities? And maybe you'd like to take a view on the timings of this 'telling'?

The fact that your Conservative MP does not (you say) 'refuse' to use these funds makes a difference, does it?

Trade Unions are democratic bodies? Really? Not for the past forty or fifty years, I'm afraid.

What evidence do you have that Ashcroft is 'eccentric' any more so than, say, Lord Paul? And you say he's 'buying an election' - what does that actually mean and entail?

As to 'loopholes', well maybe. What about so many other 'loopholes'? Offshore, Non-dom, inheritance taxes, etc etc.

And how about the all those other splendid 'loopholes' that have been exploited over the last ten years? Do you want to close them, too? Where do we start then?

Don't get me wrong, I'm no supporter of Ashcroft, having some knowledge of (a few of) his dealings in Florida and Belize, but to suggest that there are some 'rules' or 'standards' which Ashcroft has ignored is crass. He's a whole lot cleverer than that.

Peter Kenyon said...

Dear Iain

I'm with David Boothroyd on this issue. I picked up Robert Halfon's remarks from his local paper in my blog this morning. It's a similarly flawed argument to that (sadly) used by the Labour Party NEC members to support the Hayden Phillips proposals.

I'm looking to our man of vision to adopt a principled approach.

Anonymous said...

Would someone explain to this simpleton why Lord Paul, Lord Levy, Sir Ronnie Cohen et al are free to give as much as they like to Labour, but when Lord Ashcroft (much respect) donates to the Conservatives in a thoroughly constructive and well-managed way, everyone shrieks and throws up their hands?

Or have I answered my own question?

nb. I ran the campaign in 05 for a marginal seat, which we won back for Labour. We received some funding from Lord A, but only after a detailed investigation; we were then regularly monitored, but not interfered with. If he had the time, I wish Lord A could become Chief Executive of CCHQ.

Newmania said...

Quite right Iain .I leapt out of my seat at this when I saw it in the Standard. The abuse of the communications allowance is an ongoing scandal and if David Boothroyd thinks telling the constituents what they are doing is different from campaigning then he will no doubt agree that telling them what we propose to do as Conservatives is equally not campaigning,.

The trade Union movement is not democratic, its members have little choice as to whether to join it in the first place .It has no ‘special’ right to try to run the country by buying itself a political Party. If the Labour Party think sit can change the rules to bann donations from individuals and keep its bribes from individual organisations then its is corrupt beyond all reasoning. Brown`s further attempts to use his office to keep power are threatening the basis of democracy in this country and I am honestly in fear of what this despotic mad-man may do next. He looks increasingly crazed and as the prize recedes what may he be capable of ...why not simply bann other political Parties ? Is that so far a step form banning their source of funding

By exposing the extent top which the Labour party is bought and paid for by the Unions and certain very rich individuals Brown may do himself no favours.


BTW Yes yes yes why the hell are a tiny collections undecideds (liberals ) treated like a Major Party......wanna guess...The BBC agrees with them .

Anonymous said...

Sorry, mistype, we 'won back FROM Labour'.

Anonymous said...

David Boothroyd,

"If donations are capped, then the cap that applies to trade unions should be multiplied by the number of individual members of the union."

If I understand you here then, say, there was a cap of £50K. This would allow CWU (membership 250,000) to donate £12.5 Billion! An exaggerated example I know but it illustrates that everyone would be effectively capped in donating except unions.

Why should there be special rules for the unions donating?

Anonymous said...

Members of trade unions have to opt in to their political funds in order for any of their subs to go to the Labour Party - so it's wholly democratic. Also, have a look at Oona King's diaries if you want to know why Labour MPs need lots of funding - because thousands of their constituents have desperate problems which the MPs are helping to resolve.

Tony said...

When Gordon Brown and the union brothers satisfactorily answer the questions that need to be addressed, only then can they be morally justified in trying to prevent a man from financially supporting a party that does not benefit from public funds laundered through the unions.

aardvark said...

machiavelli 10.37 AM said...

There's another point that you forgot to mention Iain; the in-built and massive disadvantage that the Conservatives have through the constituency boundaries. As you said yourself the other day regarding the ICM poll putting the Tories 7 points ahead of Labour: "This would give the Conservatives a single figure majority and demonstartes how badly the electoral system is stacked against the Tories."
machiavelli 10.37 AM said...

There's another point that you forgot to mention Iain; the in-built and massive disadvantage that the Conservatives have through the constituency boundaries. As you said yourself the other day regarding the ICM poll putting the Tories 7 points ahead of Labour: "This would give the Conservatives a single figure majority and demonstartes how badly the electoral system is stacked against the Tories."

Constituency boundaries are defined by the Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland. They are reviewed roughly every 10 years and are based on electoral population. The political make-up of the area is not a consideration. In England the Commissioners carve up each county, borough, etc to give an average constituency population of around 70,000. It varies around that figure because of the constraints of local authority boundaries. Currently, the Conservatives suffer because their support across the country is less uniform than that of Labour. It used to be the other way round and Labour politicians were always complaining that there was a built-in bias.

Unless we change the present constituency system and/or go to proportional representation there is always likely to be an apparent bias.



Constituency boundaries are defined by the Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland. They are reviewed roughly every 10 years and are based on electoral population. The political make-up of the area is not a consideration. In England the Commissioners carve up each county, borough, etc to give an average constituency population of around 70,000. It varies around that figure because of the constraints of local authority boundaries. Currently, the Conservatives suffer because their support across the country is less uniform than that of Labour. It used to be the other way round and Labour politicians were always complaining that there was a built-in bias. Unless we change the present constituency system and/or go to proportional representation there is always likely to be an apparent bias.

aardvark said...

Oops!

Ignore the last paragraph (duplicated).

Newmania said...

Members of trade unions have to opt in to their political funds in order for any of their subs to go to the Labour Party

Well then they can send them straight in to avoid the unfortunate misapprehension that this is a protection racket run in the public services to tilt the field in the direction of Labour

Deal ?

Thought not.


Whats the matter with that Boothroyd you liar, if the donations are individual why not just tell the members they are able to donate voluntarily...ha ha ha .

You would have though that they had learned their lesson. The public will support the Unions over fair conditions and pay ( on occassion) they will not have them buy the political process and use it to outlaw other Parties in effect. We are not going to be ruled by the Unions and their placemen here !!

Wrinkled Weasel said...

Calm down dears. Mavis Chankroyd is only a troll.

David Boothroyd said...

I remember the days when it used to be said that Conservatives were politer people than Labour. Well, not any more, it seems.

David Lindsay said...

Can anyone explain why Hilary Armstrong, whose seat is so safe that she actually inherited it from her father, and who is probbaly going to retire at the next Election anyway, is now putting out these "communications" to every household in her constituency?

She is also posing as a campiagner to save what little remains of a hospital the destruction of which has been her life's work hitherto. It is all very strange...

Newmania said...

AAdvark - The problem with the boundary commission , is that people keep leaving benighted Labour areas and the system just cannot keep pace.

I thought a good idea was to turn over half the HO Lords to a PR system and see how it goes .

With the Scottish absurdity and the boundaries the English are almost disenfranchised. I hope someone mentions this to the thieving Pict Brown when he goes to pretend he cares if England win the world cup or not....

Swing low ,sweet Polls for Brown
Phoney Scots can run along home
Swing low sweet Polls for Brown
Phoney Scots can run along home



He slaps my back and steals my purse
Phoney Scots ....
The sight of him makes us play worse
Phoney Scots .....


The Pictish Horde once stole our sheep
( Phoney Scots ..
Now he turns up here to creep
( Phoney Scots

He takes geld from the Union hordes
( Phoney Scots ....
But tries to stamp out friendly Lords
(Phoney Scots ...


Thirty billion pounds in crates
( Phoney Scots
Bound for Gordon’s client State
( Phoney Scots....


He hates the English to his core
(Phoney Scots ....
Except when he wants more and more


Swing low ,sweet Polls for Brown
Phoney Scots can run along home
Swing low sweet Polls for Brown
Phoney Scots can run along home


Hey I`ve discovered a new verse from

Anonymous said...

I'd be proud to call Lord Ashcroft my friend too if he gave me £10k

David Lindsay said...

At least people on here, such as Newmania, are now admitting that the Tories actually cannot win the next Election, because of the constituency boundaries. Progress of a sort, perhaps...

However, they are still oblivious to the fact that Scotland, Wales, the North and the Midlands - "Brown's client state" - are (with the West Country) where any successor-party would have to win seats in order to win office.

Nor has the penny dropped, either just how much of the private sector is now by definition dependent on either or both of public sector contracts and the spending power of public sector workers, or, therefore, just how dependent thereon the Conservative Party now is and any successor-party would be.

Want money from, say, a building contractor in Wales, or a supermarket chain with branches across the North? Well, there you are then.

Anonymous said...

Given your showing at the last election, Iain, shouldn't you offer to give Ashcroft his money back?

Anonymous said...

It used to be the case that money spent outside election periods was still counted towards the expense limit if it was part of that specific election campaign.

This needs clarifying.

Prior to the 2000 Act, you could not promote a CANDIDATE, without starting election expenses. You could still promoted a PARTY or IDEALS.

You could add a candidates name, but you had to refer to them as the PROSPECTIVE PARLIAMENTARY CANDIDATE and their name had to be secondary to the leaflet; ie under something like Anytown Lib Dems etc.

Labour changed this, but to be honest, nothing really changed, although it stopped a few idiots jumping up and down when someone accused an opponent of starting their election expenses.

Blackacre said...

If we had a decent PR system where all constituencies and voters were properly valued we would not have any of this nonsense.

NigelC said...

I would urge David Boothroyd and others to read the updates that the sitting MP in Harlow sends to constituents and with which Robert has to contend. In the last he attacks and attempts to smear a campaign I run to prevent building on the Green Belt north of Harlow. In my opinion clearly campaigning for his point of view not simply informing.

Anonymous said...

robert halfon - an amusing man, but an MP? pull the other one.

David Boothroyd said...

Opposition to Harlow North is common across all parties in Harlow, so this is not a party political issue. Try again.

Anonymous said...

What I am trying to understand is why Lord Ashcroft has fewer rights than say Lord Sainsbury or various non-dom billionaires?

Membership of a Union is very often compulsory in order to be employed in a facility. Are members only allowed to tick the box for their "donation" to Labour? Are there other available boxes to tick - Greens, Conservatives, SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru?

Victor

David Lindsay said...

"Membership of a Union is very often compulsory in order to be employed in a facility."

No it isn't. That's against the law.

Anonymous said...

That communications allowance was outrageous. I remember that a few MPs and bloggers stuck their neck out and disagreed with it, but even the Conservative MPs went along with it fairly quietly.

Let's face it, a level playing field is better for democracy.

NigelC said...

David Boothroyd- You are completely wrong about opposition to Harlow north within Harlow's political parties.
All parties in East Herts are unified in their opposition to this building programme.
Bill Rammell, MP for Harlow, is in favour

Anonymous said...

Iain, there is a degree of hypocrisy in this argument. Should Tory MPs who do not get Ashcrofts money then need to 'level the playing field' and not use their communications allowance to ensure Labour and other challengers have equal chance? Terry

NigelC said...

Here is a quote from Bill Rammell's (MP for Harlow)latest letter to consituents. When describing his plans for housing he states "I don't want another public meeting that is hijacked by the East Herts based anti homes campaign known as "Stop Harlow North"-.."
The statement is clearly campaigning in nature (also seems to advocate curtailing free speech), inaccurate and inappropriate if it was paid for by the taxpayer.
It was distributed on House of Commons headed paper
I have asked Mr Rammell to withdraw his comments. He has not responded

Chris Paul said...

TU Funds are a different kettle of fish. As David Boothroyd says the result of democratic decisions by lots of individuals to give a couple of bob a week (literally a couple of bob a week). Ashcroft is quite different, and also operating on a quite different scale to most if not all TU support for CLPs round the country.

Mr Lindsay's point about Lord Paul (no relation) is an interesting one. Is it actually true?

And old Machievelli's point re boundaries - do you want bussing of Tories or Salamander shaped constituencies matey?

Chris Paul said...

On the matter of Communications Allowances the only MP in the City of Manchester abusing these to send political material out - in both 2006 and 2007 just ahead of local elections - is John Leech MP. The Labour ones have fallen out of the habit of sending parliamentary reports but in any case Mr Leech crosses the line over and over again.

Loads of pictures of local government candidates. Pictures with party political materials. Same layout and essential wordage as "real" campaign material.

He voted against the extra £10,000 but he was already taking the piss big style and will now double his efforts with the extra sponney.

One of these days I'll scan the bloody things in and we can all marvel at how blatant it is. Also there's been a lot of passing himself off as MP outside his boundaries in areas that will change and also in areas that will not.

Chuck Unsworth said...

@ Chris Paul "TU Funds are a different kettle of fish".

Why? How? What's your point? Is it that somehow Trades Unions' funds are in some way holier or more exalted than the money donated by those capitalist pig running dog fascists?

Let's get real here, the government has recently given the Trades Unions large funds - taxpayers' cash, of course. For what? Development? What of, for God's sake? It's payback time, that's all. What goes around comes around. This is the government doling out other people's money to their pals in the hope of getting some of it back by way of political funds. 'Fish' is precisely the word.

And why does 'scale' alter the morality or even legality of the donation? What's the rationale here? I'm really interested in the logic(?) of this position.

Adrian Yalland said...

Sorry Iain, but I am a Tory and even I know this is crap!

MPs - thats ALL MPs of ALL party's use their allowance to do their work as an MP, not campaigning.

Whilst you are right about the trade unions, whose members vote their political levy to where they wish it to go, Labour are right about Mr Ashcroft who is an enourmously wealthy individual - and who just happens to be DC's right hand man and was I suspected put in to the Lords because he gives so much dosh to the party.

Let's just be honest about this and call it quits!

judith said...

Adrian - what about the enormously wealthy Michael Levy, who was put into the Lords by Blair, whose right-hand man he was?

Or the enormously wealthy Sir Ronnie Cohen, right-hand man to Gordon Brown?

Anonymous said...

The question that needs to be asked about the Ashcroft donations is whether they should have been counted within the Conservatives national spending totals for the General Election.

Expenditure under taken in the 12 month period before the General Election which promotes or procures sucess for a party or its candidates, or enhances the standing of the party or its candidates or prejudices the electoral prospects of any opponents counts towards the national campaign spending limit (section 72 of PPERA) and s72(8) also makes it clear that expenditure incurred by or on behalf of an accounting unit of a party (i.e. constituency associations for the Tories) is regarded as national campaign expenditure. It is very difficult to see how the Ashcroft donations could fall outside this definition.

If the Ashcroft donation should have been included in the Tories campaign expenditure - then it would almost certainly be the case that the national expenditure limit was broken during the last election as the recorded expenditure was very near the limit.

Perhaps this is something that the Electoral Commission or others should be investigating.

On the declaration of interest, I am presuming that it is North Norfolk and not you that received the £10,000 - since if it was the latter you have failed to register the donation with the Electoral Commission. North Norfolk registered 3 donations from Ashcrofts' front company totally c£17k - I'm presuming that they had someone with better accounting skills than Iain!

Adrian Yalland said...

Judith: What about them?

All partys have their wealthy benefactors, and all party's reward benevolence in some way or another. All partys have sectional interest groups too (except the Lib Dems - which says something about their lack of appeal).

I happen to think (for what it is worth) that Lord Ashcroft is one of the most transparent backers of a political party, but the point is, we are all up to it.

Either we stop rich people donating money, or we stop talking about it, pointing fingers and shouting at each other.

All the partys are as bad as each other really!