In an article in "The Independent" (25th November) Michael Ashcroft asks "Why am I the victim of all these vicious smears?
I do not seek anything for myself beyond the return of a Conservative government." Has it not occurred to Mr. Ashcroft that many people find it incredible that a person who is the Ambassador to the United Nations for a foreign county (Belize), who has voluntarily opted to spend at least 275 days per annum outside the United Kingdom for tax reasons is donating £1million to the Conservative Party for nothing other than the return of a Conservative government. Did it never cross his mind that every previous holder of the post ended up with a peerage, that the position gives direct access to the Party Leader with the opportunity whether taken or not to influence him, that as a donor of 10% of the income of the Party he is in a position as Treasurer to veto any expenditure of the Party he does not approve - a situation the Party used to avoid by having a Chinese wall between fund raising and expenditure.
If he does believe that ordinary members of the Party find these credible and acceptable then let him put it to the test. Let him stand in an election for Party Treasurer. Michael Ashcroft says he gives the money to the Party because he supports the Tory principles of free markets and personal liberty. Does he also support the principle of democratic accountability and if so why is this principle not applied within the Tory Party?
It has been reported that Mr. Ashcroft is to return to the United Kingdom as a resident. If so, this is good news for the UK taxpayer, but also it would remove the main handicaps to him being elected as Treasurer.
In 1945 the Conservative Party suffered a massive defeat in the General Election. Party membership was only 250,000, a little less than today. It was an ageing membership - the young had gone to war. By 1951 the Party had 2.8million members and the Party Chairman, Lord Woolton, had raised £10,000,000 at today's values, mainly in small subscriptions and donations. He changed the nature of the Party by stopping candidates and MP's buying their positions by limiting to £100 per annum theamount they could donate to their Association (something we have recently forgotten). He did all this by concentrating the effort into developing mass membership. No donation or subscription was too small.
After 1951 Conservative Party membership declined. At the time of the Houghton Report on Party Funding in 1975 it was estimated at 1.5million. However the critical decline took place in the 1980's. Lord McAlpine as Party Treasurer raised every larger sums of money from fewer and fewer individuals. It was easier to do this than build up the membership. The ordinary member was ignored. By 1990 when I was a member of the Conservative Board of Finance, almost the entire Central Income of the Party was being raised from less than 200 individuals. It was clear that a recession or severe unpopularity would decimate the Party. We got both, so that by 1993 there was an accumulated deficit of £19,000,000.
Sir Norman Fowler (Party Chairman) said in 1993 "The last eighteen months have seen solid progress in correcting the Party's financial position with a series of sweeping reforms of the Conservative Party Organisation.
Tough and at times painful action has been taken to get our finances on a more stable footing. Spending has been cut to the lowest level in real terms since 1979." So were the lesson learnt?
In the year to 31st March 1998 there was a deficit of £10,000,000. The Party had negative net assets of £4,000,000. Membership is down to 300,000. This year Michael Ashcroft stated "When William Hague appointed me as Chairman of the Board of Treasurers, I committed myself to the total reorganisation of the Fund Raising and cost structures of the Conservative Party.
The new cost controls at Central Office were instigated during 1998 and expenditure has been firmly under control since September of that year (Was it not before?) The new slimmer organisations at Central Office is more efficient and effective than ever before. You have my personal assurance that every penny that comes into the Treasurer's office is well spent."
The importance attached to membership of the Party is illustrated by the fact that the total staff of the Membership Department at Central Office in October 1999 is two.
Are the Parliamentary Party concerned at this state of affairs! No, they all appear to believe that they are safe because they believe that the result of the next Election cannot be worse than the last. The decline in membership does not unduly concern them. Members of Parliament are accountable to the electorate at a General Election. Between elections the only checks on them come from their membership - the fewer the members the easier it is to satisfy them and the less likelihood they were be hauled before an Executive to account for their actions.
A democratically elected Treasurer would have to address the concerns of the membership. Members would be able to influence priorities in expenditure. The higher the membership the greater the chance that it will reflect the views of the people. The members are the link between the MP and the people.
Finally let me give a small example of the difference between an appointed Treasurer and an elected Treasurer. Since Sir Norman Fowler was Party Chairman the Accounts of the Party were available at the Party Conference and were sent to Constituency Chairmen . Last year Michael Ashcroft stopped this because the Party could not afford the £10,000 needed to print the accounts. An elected Treasurer would have said "We cannot print the Accounts because we do not have £10,000. However if any person wishes to have a copy they can buy a photocopy for £5 and in addition we are putting the Accounts on the Internet so that anybody can see them free of charge."
Incidentally in spite of the fact that we are now more efficient and effective than ever before - when I asked at the Party Conference for a copy of the Party's Accounts for the year ended 31st March 1999 I was told they were not available.
When will they be? No announcement has been made to members. Surprise, surprise.
For democracy to survive in the United Kingdom we have to ensure that those institutions that are part of the democratic process, i.e. the Political Parties, are themselves democratic. The Labour Party is treading the same path down which the Conservative Party has gone. It will find that the patronage of power which attracts the big donors will have the same financial consequences for them as it has had for the Conservative Party. Do we want our democracy controlled by the cosy little club or the control freaks?
This is why Mr. Ashcroft you should stand for election or resign. The choice is yours.