Leading article: How money can distort the democratic process

The Tories' use of Lord Ashcroft's millions raises profound questions

Share
Related Topics

Labour Party activists will be alarmed to hear not only that the Conservatives have amassed a £10m fund to fight the coming election but that they have already spent an additional £6m preparing the ground in just 117 of the constituencies which are regarded as the key swing seats. The drive has been masterminded by the party's deputy chairman, the Belize-based billionaire, Lord Ashcroft, who has bankrolled the Tories for the past three decades.

The party's opponents will protest that donations on this scale distort the democratic process. The Tories, in response, will point to the funding of the Labour Party by the trades unions. But the amounts involved are disproportionate. The Conservatives received double what Labour did in the last three months of 2009 and the governing party is going into the election at a greater financial disadvantage than any time since 1983, when it suffered a landslide defeat. The Tories are set to spend treble what Labour can afford, after cost-cutting measures that are forcing Labour to operate with about half the staff it had in 2005. But it is not simply the amounts of cash which give cause for concern. There are issues of propriety; Lord Ashcroft continues to refuse to answer the question as to whether he pays tax in Britain and whether his companies are legally eligible to make donations to a political party. There are issues of transparency too; the Tories were singled out this week by the Electoral Commission for failing to declare the money it had received on time.

Yet what should worry Labour most, though, is not Lord Ashcroft's cash but the canniness with which he has been directing the big influx of Tory money. He has not just targeted swing seats but has crunched demographic data to identify key wards and then relentlessly bombarded them with leaflets, canvassers and hundreds of billboard posters dominated by the infamously airbrushed photographs of David Cameron in an advertising blitz that Labour simply could not match. Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs with small majorities have found themselves up against weekly Tory newsletters, ads in local newspapers, telephone surveys to sound out the individual concerns of voters, followed up by targeted mailshots.

Private polling by the Conservatives shows that their lead in the polls, which has been slipping nationally in recent months, is holding up well in these target areas. The conventional wisdom is that the Tories need a 10 per cent national swing to win an overall majority. But it may be that a 6 per cent national swing would suffice, if they win more voters in these key marginals. In 2005 Lord Ashcroft bankrolled 25 of the 33 Tories who took seats from Labour and the Lib Dems. He spent so much cash that in places voters were each sent an individual DVD featuring the Tory candidate.

There is a more profound question which all this raises. The Ashcroft strategy highlights the fact that in our first-past-the-post voting system, the nation's destiny hinges on the decisions made by a comparatively tiny number of floating voters in less than one-fifth of our parliamentary constituencies. How the rest of us vote makes scarcely a difference.

Our voting system virtually disenfranchises the overwhelming majority of voters. Small wonder that so many do not even bother to turn out to vote – a figure which may well reach a new low this time. It all only serves to underscore the strength of the case for the reform of the British electoral system.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Job opportunities for SEN teachers and support staff in Essex

£50 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are urgently looking for...

Technology Teacher (Resistant Materials and Graphics)

£120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are urgently looking for an ex...

Maths Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are urgently look...

Science Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are urgently look...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The daily catch-up: fathers looking after children, World Cup questions and Nostradamus

John Rentoul
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Phone and data laws to be passed in haste

Andrew Grice
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice