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Labour MP makes case for urgent legislation to stop Lord Ashcroft and CCHQ from funding target seats

Ex-Guardian journalist and Labour MP for the super marginal seat of Battersea was on the Today programme this morning.  As a member of Peter Hain's deputy leadership campaign, Martin Linton was there to explain how the Work & Pensions Secretary had failed to declare £103,000 of donations to that campaign.  You would think that Mr Linton wouldn't be keen to talk about party political funding but no.  Here are extracts from a speech he made in Westminster Hall on Tuesday about Lord Ashcroft's funding of the Conservative Party.  Mr Linton is the MP leading Labour backbench attempts to regulate the funding of political parties between elections.

The Tories are raising more money: "Overall, Tory associations have raised almost as much from individual donations since the last election as they did in the whole period between 2001 and 2005. On the much more important matter of donations to Conservative central office, which is at a far higher level, the Conservatives have already raised more since 2005—£15 million in individual donations, never mind other kinds—than they did between 2001 and 2005, when they raised £14.8 million."

The Tories are spending money earlier: "The truth is that many Conservative candidates are starting their campaigns now. In doing so, they are importing two of the least desirable characteristics of politics in the United States. We are spending a lot more money than we used to, and we are starting to spend it earlier, although we are nowhere near the obscene amounts spent in American politics yet. Spending has practically doubled in every US election this century. Bush spent $95 million on his primary campaign in 2000 and $269 million, nearly triple that, in 2004. Overall spending by all candidates on primaries, elections and conventions rose from $649 million in 2000 to just over $1 billion in 2004, and all the signs predict that it will rise even higher in 2008.  American politics, I readily confess, is now so distorted by big money that merely saying that we are not as bad as the Americans is not saying very much. Perhaps more alarming is the fact that candidates are following the American example by starting to campaign a couple of years before the election is remotely likely to occur. From all over the country, we hear reports that candidates are starting to deliver regular newsletters, not saying what they are doing—because, of course, they hold no position—but attacking the Government and the incumbent MP. That is exactly what we expect them to do during an election campaign, but they are starting two years early."

Ashcroft has funded seats successfully before: "As a freelance operation, Lord Ashcroft and two other donors channelled £1.3 million into marginal seats outside the Conservative campaign. Ashcroft was typically getting £20,000 or £40,000 cheques to candidates who met with his approval. We also know that it worked. Peter Bradley, who lost his seat in The Wrekin, has calculated that there was a higher swing in the seats that received that money than in other seats. We know that Lord Ashcroft agreed with that assessment because, although things were a bit gloomy at central office on the night of the last election, he was celebrating the fact that 25 of the 33 gains involved candidates to whom he had given money. We also know that he was planning to do the same next time, not as a freelancer outside the Conservative campaign, but as vice-chairman of the Conservative party, sitting in party headquarters and orchestrating things from there."

Labour incompetence made this possible: "Until 2000, it was impossible for candidates to campaign between elections without it counting towards their election expenses. We accidentally changed the law in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, so that candidates’ spending limits are switched on not by candidates themselves declaring themselves as candidates or starting to campaign, but by the dissolution. That was never intended; apparently there was a mix-up on the last day of the Bill’s debate in the House of Lords. Although the mix-up was unforgivable, I have never heard anyone take responsibility for it."

Labour must legislate against Ashcroft very quickly: "To have any beneficial effect, legislation to close the Ashcroft loophole must be on the statute book well before the next election—by summer, or by Christmas at the very latest—as the experience of the past few elections has shown us that candidates and parties tend to launch their campaigns in January of the year in which the election is held."

Related links: CCHQ highlights widespread abuse of parliamentary communications allowance by Labour MPs and  'Lord Ashcroft merely levels the playing field'


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