How to Buy an Election
Mark Seddon is the former United Nations Correspondent and New York Bureau Chief for Al-Jazeera English TV. He reported from eighteen countries during that time, including North Korea, China, Haiti, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has interviewed, amongst others, Ban Ki-Moon, Lech Walesa, Tony Blair, Hans Blix, Michael Foot, Mia Farrow, and George Clooney. In a journalistic career spanning over twenty years, he has been Editor of Tribune and an elected member of the UK Labour Party's National Executive Committee. He has written for most British newspapers and many magazines, including The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Times, The Spectator, New Statesman, Private Eye, British Journalism Review and Country Life Magazine. For a number of years he was a Diarist at the London Evening Standard, and has also reported for, amongst others, the BBC and Sky TV. He lives in Buckingham, England.
Lord Michael Ashcroft is a Conservative Peer who does not pay any income tax on his foreign earnings. He is more usually described as a “Belize-based businessman”; Belize may not be one of the better known tax havens, but he has companies based in others that are, most notably the Cayman Islands. I imagine that he has so arranged his affairs that he does not pay much tax at all.
If it were not for the fact that he has been the British Conservative Party’s biggest financial backer in recent years, I suspect that he would not have attracted as much controversy as he has. However, when he was made a Peer, at the suggestion of the then Conservative leader, William Hague, he made a solemn undertaking to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that he would begin to pay tax on his foreign earnings. This undertaking was transmitted to the Queen, and he took his place in the House of Lords.
Except that, as we now know, his “solemn undertakings” did not amount to a row of beans. Lord Ashcroft remained, in the parlance, a “non Dom,” and over the past ten years has donated millions to the Conservative Party. Other political parties have “non Dom” donors too; they make up for the fact that the parties have few members between them, and in the absence of state funding, expensive campaigns have to be fought with rich men’s money. But Ashcroft, for all this, remains a special case – because of the big fat Porky, he told William Hague at the time.
So where have all of the millions gone? Why, into the fifty or so marginal constituencies where British elections are won. Here these extra resources do make a real difference, and unsurprisingly the Conservatives are faring a lot better in the marginals than elsewhere, at least that is what the polls are saying. Lord Ashcroft is also Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, and his longstanding antipathy to the European Union has helped ensure that by and large candidates of his own political persuasion have managed to get past the first stages of the selection process.
If the Conservatives do win the General Election literally two months away, the party will owe Ashcroft – despite all of the current controversy – a huge debt of thanks. That the British election may we have been bought by someone who doesn’t like paying taxes in Britain is utterly appalling. But perhaps only then, will the British people wake up and “smell the coffee.” Our democracy is reverting to something primeval, a franchising operation, run by and for, a handful of the super rich, who unlike the rest of us don’t pay their taxes.