The Ashcroft saga doesn't end here

The investigation into the Tory peer's company must conclude before the election.

After more than a decade of obfuscation, Lord Ashcroft has finally come out and admitted he's a non-dom. He did so through a statement on his website, designed to pre-empt the Cabinet Office's release of the promise he made regarding his tax status when he became a Conservative peer in 2000.

Here is the key passage:

As the letter shows, the undertakings I gave were confirmed in a memorandum to William Hague dated 23rd March 2000. These were to "take up permanent residence in the UK again" by the end of that year. The other commitment in the memorandum was to resign as Belize's permanent representative to the UN, which I did a week later.

In subsequent dialogue with the Government, it was officially confirmed that the interpretation in the first undertaking of the words "permanent residence" was to be that of "a long-term resident" of the UK. I agreed to this and finally took up my seat in the House of Lords in October 2000. Throughout the last ten years, I have been declaring all my UK income to HM Revenue. My precise tax status therefore is that of a "non-dom".

In an attempt to blunt Labour's anticipated attack, he adds:

Two of Labour's biggest donors -- Lord Paul (recently made a privy councillor by the Prime Minister) and Sir Ronald Cohen, both long-term residents of the UK -- are also "non-doms".

It's something of a false comparison. Neither of those two enjoys anything like the influence the Tory deputy chairman has over his party's campaign strategy, but even so, Labour stands plausibly accused of hypocrisy.

He ends by promising to change his tax status following David Cameron's pledge to ban non-doms from the Lords.

But the story doesn't end here. It is now essential that the Electoral Commission complete its investigation into whether donations made to the Tories by Ashcroft's company, Bearwood Corporate Services, breached funding rules before the 2005 election. The inquiry began 18 months ago amid claims that Bearwood was not a fully functioning business at the time the donations were made. Since 2003, the company has donated more than £4.7m to the party.

Should the Electoral Commission rule that Bearwood's donations breached electoral law, not only would the Tories be forced to repay the money, but MPs could launch a legal challenge to the election result.

In the meantime, if Labour's attack is to have any moral force, it must refuse to take another penny from anyone who isn't a full UK taxpayer.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.