Two weeks ago you raised a variety of questions for Lord Ashcroft. Michael answers them below.
James Maskell: Do you believe that the A-List is an appropriate tool for candidate selection in key marginals?
As I showed in Smell The Coffee (now available in full on www.lordashcroft.com if you will excuse the plug), we need to change the way people see the Party if we are to win the next Election. A key part of that must be to have candidates in our target seats that are representative of modern Britain. This is not about appealing to a fashionable set in London; it is about appealing to the people whose votes we need to get rid of this Labour Government. David Cameron has acknowledged that the process is difficult for some of the individuals involved but it is right for the Party as a whole. I have been following the debate on ConservativeHome on this subject closely and I am pleased to see that most of the comments have expressed disappointment about people who have been left off the A-List, rather than criticising the people who have got on. I know more people will be added to the list over the summer and hopefully that will address most of the concerns.
CDM: Where do you stand on Lords Reform?
Well, if we were designing a legislative system from scratch, I don’t think anybody would be proposing the current House of Lords. I understand the merits of an elected second chamber but in my view there are a number of drawbacks. In particular, would an elected second chamber attract people with the same wide range of experience and spirit of independence? The remaining hereditary peers make a significant contribution to the work of the House of Lords but, as a matter of principle, I believe that people should be there on merit, rather than by accident of birth.
Old Hack: Your direct support for marginal seats in the last election was invaluable and, I believe, at least partly responsible for many gains. How do you see your marginal seats unit following through on this success?
In the run-up to the 2005 Election I “did my own thing” because I did not believe that the Party was targeting its resources effectively and that a ruthless focus on winnable target seats would deliver results. Things have changed. I am delighted that David Cameron and Francis Maude have asked me, as Deputy Chairman with responsibility for target seats, to apply this approach right across the Party. My team will deliver a highly focused campaign working with our candidates from the day they are selected. There is no room now for any mavericks running solo operations!
Derek: On the question of party funding, in your recent book you said that you believed that this should come from a mass membership. You also said that until then people such as yourself would be needed to fill the gap. In the light of the recent revelations have you changed your view? In particular do you accept that many of the public believe that large donations will be in return for some sort of large influence or reward? My own view is that wealthy people will always be able to have influence, for example by placing advertisements in the national press, or even owning newspapers. What is your view?
My views have not changed. I expressed them recently in The Times. When I was Party Treasurer I implemented a number of changes to broaden our funding base but there is still too much reliance on large donors. The Party is taking measures to address this but in the short term some large donations will still be required. Electors will form their own judgements on whether parties should accept particular donations but I believe most people prefer the current system to paying more tax to fund election campaigns by political parties that they do not support.
Andrew Woodman: How does Lord Ashcroft view the recently discussed topics on CH of the North/South divide? Would he advocate more funding for the north/midlands party infrastructure to win over this key area?
I think there is some confusion on this issue. First of all, Labour have always had more support in the North and the Conservative Party more support in the South. Nor is it the case that recent election results have been uniformly poor in the North and Midlands and good in the South. Finally I think we need to understand why we are doing better in some areas than others: research shows it is because we are doing better among some sections of the electorate (professionals, who are disproportionately concentrated in the South). It is true that we have greater organisational problems in the North of England and we will be addressing this as part of the target seats campaign but it is not something that can be solely remedied by grass roots campaigning or more effectively targeting. Re-establishing the Conservative Party across the northern regions and making it relevant again is a major project with implications for the whole Party. For example, should our sole base be in London or should a significant political campaigning and media operation be established in the North of England?
Janice Small: Do you believe that those candidates who have previously fought a marginal, in some cases twice, and are not on the A list should be allowed to be re-selected by their local associations? Do you not think that we have to make a clean sweep across the country because some of these candidates come with baggage and were previously rejected by the electorate. If not, then we can be accused of not having changed.
I explained in my answer to James Maskell why I support the A-List. However, local Associations are going to be allowed to interview strong local candidates who are not on the A-List, which in many cases may include the previous candidate. My experience from working with a number of these candidates is that most of them put in an enormous effort and often achieved good results. Generally it was the national brand, not them, that was rejected by the electorate but local Associations are in the best position to decide whether fielding the same candidate is the right decision.
James: Do you believe that we will see a more fragmented, American-style financing of political campaigning? For instance, this blog has noted the rise of campaigning organisations outside pure party lines (such as the Taxpayers' Alliance). Is it going to be the case that issue-based groups take a more direct role in funding candidates and campaigning (like the Countryside Alliance did) - I believe that Women2Win is seeking to raise funds for women in marginal seats.
Yes. If we are going to build the winning coalition of 42-44 per cent of the electorate that Francis Maude refers to, we are going to have to work with a range of groups who share many of our instincts, even if they don’t agree with us on every issue. I know that Tim Montgomerie has done a lot of work learning lessons from America in this field, which will be of huge value to the Party. But, like in America, there will still be a need for a well-funded central organisation.
Simon C: Should there be an extension of state funding for political parties & if so what form should it take?
I am relaxed about a modest extension to Short money but I am opposed to state funding of election campaigns. As a matter of principle, I believe that people shouldn’t have to pay taxes to fund election campaigns by political parties that they do not support.
Nigel C: What advice would he give to local councilors that currently participate in and sometimes chair Regional Assemblies? Damage limitation, non-cooperation (decline the chair), or withdrawal? We seem to have a mixed bag across England when national policy is clear that we will abolish them when in power. Some Assemblies are making long term commitments and taking on long term liabilities that will have to be unwound in due cause at some considerable cost to the taxpayer. What approach should we be taking to current involvement in these unelected and undemocratic bodies?
My business, political and charitable work have led me to take a detailed interest in many different fields but the details of regional government is not one of them. Perhaps I could refer this question to my excellent colleague Eric Pickles? I am sure what he doesn’t know about regional assemblies isn’t worth knowing…
William Norton: What approach do you advocate for improving the professionalism of local campaigning without introducing too much centralisation in the Party?
I believe the best way to professionalise local campaigning is to select high quality candidates, to provide them with the best quality training and support and then let them drive local campaigns. To do this, the Party has to tackle the ludicrous set-up where more money is spent building up larger and larger majorities in the seats we hold that in the seats we need to win.
Tom Greeves: You wrote a very engaging article for The Spectator recently about the Victoria Cross. Many people compare and contrast the quiet and dignified heroism of people who have won the VC with the wildly disproportionate attention paid to pop stars, actors, reality show contestants and (dare I say?) Premiership footballers. Do you personally have qualms about celebrity culture, and do you think this is something that the Conservative Party can usefully comment on - or should we embrace it? (I actually DIDN'T particularly have the controversies about the A-List in my mind when I thought of this question.)
Of course we should honour the heroism of those who have won the Victoria Cross, and more generally those who serve in our armed forces, but I am not as worried as you about celebrity culture for two reasons. First, in my experience many celebrities are generous with their time for charitable causes and are good role models. Second, the modern media gives people from all walks of life the chance to be a celebrity and that, I think, is a good thing.
Alex: Are you concerned that the Labour government might try and prevent the direct aid that you gave to marginal seats? Are the party fully aware of the importance of cash going to marginals early in a parliamentary cycle?
I can assure you that the Party is now fully aware of the importance of focusing resources on target seats early in the Parliament! At the last Election the two main parties spent more or less the same amount of money. Thanks to me and a number of other donors, the Conservative Party spent a higher proportion of its money in target seats. I am aware that a former Labour MP who believes he lost his seat as a result of this investment is rather upset about it. He should direct his complaints to Labour headquarters rather than trying to get the law changed.
Chris Palmer: Do you believe that all your contributions to the Conservative party have been 'value for money'?
I invest in the Party because I support its values. It is no secret that I believe that had we followed a different strategy at the last Election we would have got a better result. But I believe that I got value for money from my investment in target seats and the research in the run-up to the last Election published in Smell The Coffee and I have no hesitation in encouraging fellow donors to support the Party centrally now that it has got its priorities right.
Matt Davis: What is Gavin Barwell going to be doing for you, especially since he is an A list candidate and so, hopefully, will be pretty busy elsewhere?
Gavin is going to be project managing the target seats campaign for the Party. He has never done a full day’s work in his life; if he could just manage 9-5 like the rest of us he should be able to cope.
Windy City: Why do you continue giving money to the Central Office black hole rather than supporting the wider Conservative cause?
Central Office isn’t a black hole and I do give money to the CPS, Policy Exchange and Women2Win among others.