Johann Hari: There is a major design flaw in our democracy

We, as citizens, force our politicians to go begging to the super-rich
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The Independent Online

While we have all been babbling about the date of the British general election, the actual result of that election is being slowly, silently swayed by one mega-rich man. Michael Ashcroft is determined to exploit the structural defects in our democracy to secure a Tory win – and the early signs are that he is succeeding.

Who is this man, and what is his plan? The banker Ashcroft comes 89th on the Sunday Times Rich List, clocking in at £800m. He keeps much of this fortune stashed away in Belize, a Central American tax haven, and he lavishes cash on right-wing governments that cut taxes for people like him, from Australia to Central America. Now he is David Cameron's paymaster, with a desk at the heart of Conservative Central Office and the modest-sounding title of Deputy Chair.

His plan is simple. He wants to pick the few Middle England swing seats that invariably determine an election in Britain, and lavish his cash on them from now until a few weeks before polling day, when the donations are suddenly capped by election law. He will pay for extensive opinion polling, telephone canvassing, and all-important direct mail, targeted for each constituency's worries. Last month alone, he spent £2m in swing seats. Labour can't even begin to compete, never mind the smaller parties.

The strategy works. At the last election, Michael Howard tried to stop Ashcroft adopting it – he didn't like the way it smelled – but Ashcroft pushed ahead anyway. The ex-Labour MP Peter Bradley was defeated in Wrekin by this sudden flood of Ashcroft cash he couldn't match, and has dubbed the strategy "cash for seats". He says: "A lot of money buys a lot of campaigning. Cash can win constituencies." Of the 36 Tory gains, Ashcroft bankrolled 24 of them.

The effects of this tsunami of cash may well have swayed Gordon Brown in his decision this weekend not to go to the country. While the Tories can afford tip-top daily polling from marginals, the Labour Party could barely scrape together the cash for one poll for Brown to read before he made his big decision. But when it came, they found that the Tories are level-pegging with Labour in the country at large – but six points ahead in the swing seats Ashcroft has been "investing" in since 2004.

Something has gone wrong in British politics when the actions of one grossly rich man can get so close to turning elections. It reveals two design-flaws in our democracy. The first is our first-past-the-post electoral system, which renders the votes of the majority of British people irrelevant. Most of us live in "safe" seats, ones that always go Labour, Tory or Lib Dem, so our politicians have no incentive to notice what we say. Only the swing seats in the middle of Middle England are fiercely-fought democracies; the rest are neglected one-party states.

This is not the case in most European democracies. Look at the recent French elections, where a stunning 86 per cent of citizens turned out to vote. It happened in part because a vote in the poorest, most Socialist-leaning slum had to be courted just as hard as in a middle-class arrondisement. If we switched to the form of proportional representation proposed by Roy Jenkins, the idea of "swing seats" would vanish – and political campaigning would fan out equally across the country, à la France.

The second flaw is that we, as citizens, force our politicians to go begging to the super-rich. If you are a political party and you want to win an election in Britain, you have no choice but to find at least a few friendly millionaires. This distorts our politics: Michael Ashcroft's voice speaks much louder than yours or mine. I'm certain he doesn't do anything as crude as ask for anything in return for his money, and that he genuinely believes philosophically in low-tax economies. But our politicians quickly learn that if they ever start putting the public interest before the interests of the rich, the rich stop giving so enthusiastically.

If our politics is paid for by the richest one per cent, it will work in the interests of the richest one per cent – just look across the Atlantic. The solution has been outlined in Helena Kennedy's Power report. She suggested that every British citizen should have to simply tick a box once every few years, donating a couple of pounds from state coffers to the local branch of a political party of their choice. Political parties are an essential part of our democracy: if you complain that you don't want to pay for them, you might as well complain that you don't want to pay for the ballot boxes or for the pencils in the voting booths.

Whenever the election comes, there will only be one theme tune: "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing". Since Michael Ashcroft knows that songbook better than anyone, the Government needs to introduce these democratising reforms now – or we will end up with an election result contaminated by tax haven millions.