The politics of bribery

The Tories are showing themselves up as the party of corruption, says James Turley

Michael Ashcroft, the Tory peer and deputy chairman, is one of a handful in the House of Lords who has non-domiciled tax status - that is, for tax purposes he is not registered as resident in Britain. Instead, his notional home is the small central American country of Belize - the only former British colony in that region (excluding, of course, the Caribbean islands), a fine setting for a week in the sun ... and, best of all for a billionaire peer, no capital gains tax. Its national motto is Sub umbra floreo - ‘Under the shade, I flourish’; and surely no Belizean can utter that statement as honestly as Ashcroft.

If that was it, there would be no story. For a start, the House of Lords includes several members from all parties with ‘non-dom’ status (Labour peer Swraj Paul has come under increasing scrutiny recently, and was forced to resign from the privy council almost immediately after being appointed to it after his own financial fiddlings came to light). Secondly, there is the fact that, after all the rows over MPs’ expenses, the law of diminishing returns is long overdue to come into effect. We know they are all up to their ears in corruption - what else is new?

Ashcroft is not a nobody in the Tory Party, however; he is, as we have noted, its deputy chairman. Not the most exalted job title, of course, but he squeezes a lot of influence out of it. He has provided highly significant donations over the years, and is a significant power-broker in the party. It was a cause of no little interest to see William Hague, the former Conservative leader who ran an ineffectual and small-minded chauvinist election campaign even by Tory standards in 2001, return to the shadow cabinet with some aplomb under ‘nice guy’ David Cameron. The man with the closest links to both is Ashcroft: his peerage was sponsored quite vigorously by Hague in 1999, and he funded an extraordinarily detailed polling campaign around the 2005 election, which formed the basis for Cameron’s ‘rebranding’ of ‘the nasty party’.

When his peerage was in the offing, The Times published an exposé on his dealings in Belize. It was alleged that the American Drug Enforcement Administration was investigating Ashcroft for money-laundering. Little corroborating evidence has been found, and he won a libel suit on the issue, after which The Times printed a full retraction. The main consequence for Ashcroft was that he was cajoled into making a clear assurance that he would drop his non-dom status upon entering the house. It must have slipped his mind ...

That 2005 series of polls, as it happens, has also now backfired on him; the £250,000 which funded this ambitious project, according to The Guardian, came from one of Ashcroft’s companies, Bearwood Corporate Services - based in Belize, naturally (I stress the plural, companies - the oldest scam in the book as far as tax-dodging goes is setting up a series of holding companies, so that all are taxed only their own portion of the turnover, and therefore at a lower tax rate).

That is significant - not only is Ashcroft a non-dom in direct defiance to previous binding agreements; not only did he have the (honestly, almost impressive) cojones to funnel his tax savings straight back into British electoral politics; but this money is directly linked to an event which caused the self-styled natural party of government to change its strategic course significantly. Ashcroft, by spending wisely, for a brief moment bought the Conservative Party - and handed it gift-wrapped to David Cameron and his wide-eyed ‘Notting Hill set’.

You would think that quite seedy enough a career for anyone - but the wily baron may have even more on his rap sheet. Yet another ongoing libel case (Ashcroft is nothing if not litigious) concerns an alleged $5 million worth of loans to Michael Misick, the former premier of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Readers may remember that this minor tax haven was bizarrely everywhere in the news around the G20 talks last year. Misick’s deposition amid a storm of corruption allegations provided a convenient scapegoat, at a conference when governments were prepared to sabre-rattle over tax havens - but nothing more. The dire state of libel laws in Britain means we may never know whether these allegations are true.

As shocking, and picaresque, as Ashcroft’s tale is, the meat of the matter is in the aftershocks in the Tory Party. It truly could not have broken at a worse time. After what must count as the longest honeymoon period in bourgeois politics in a long while - save Tony Blair’s - cracks are beginning to appear all over David Cameron’s election campaign. The poll lead is slipping and, inasmuch as polls can be believed, a hung parliament looms. Time is running out - it is overwhelmingly likely that the election will be May 6, less than two months away.

For the last decade, if William Hague is to be believed, nobody at Conservative Central Office thought to ask Ashcroft what his tax status was, despite intermittent enquiries from journalists. It is probably true - nobody asked (certainly not Hague), because everybody knew what the answer would be. The Tories obviously thought that he was too valuable to lose. He is, after all, providing much of the funding for the Conservative campaigns in marginal constituencies specifically. Now it is clear that there is not any serious sphere of Tory activity without Ashcroft’s dirty fingerprints all over it.

So when Gordon Brown’s grand vizier, Peter Mandelson, declared that Ashcroft had Cameron “by the balls”, no amount of denials from either could stop it sticking. (As an aside, Mandelson is exaggerating here - Cameron has plenty of wealthy donors, and there are always more. Besides, surely the phrase “by the balls” was invented for Mandelson’s relationship with Gordon Brown ...)

Labour wants to make as big a deal out of Ashcroft as possible, naturally; conversely, the Tory insistence that this is a ‘private matter’ for him and him alone has the sneaky side effect of passing the buck for any direct consequences to him as an individual (the electorate, of course, is harder to fool than the law).

As communists, however, we do not focus on Ashcroft as an individual. It is plain, for a start, that for him to have any kind of success the Tory Party would have to be open to his kind of influence - not to say his kind of dosh. The problem is systemic. The British constitution, which consists of thousands upon thousands of incremental legal decisions, was constructed and reconstructed at every stage so it could be bought - it is, to paraphrase the popular summary of the late Michael Foot’s election manifesto, the longest invoice in history.

Any party that cannot attract wealthy individuals is reliant on its mass support base for funds. A fortiori, any small political organisation (such as those of the far left) is reliant on dedicated cadres to raise money, used to promote the group’s message and raising its profile - which is, of course, the only way to recruit new members, who contribute subs, and so on. So when, in order to use an election as a platform, a group has then to find £500 as a deposit (non-returnable on any realistic initial vote, naturally), it gets considerably less for its money than the rich.

A far-left campaign may scrape together enough money for a leaflet to every household; the bourgeoisie, meanwhile, have a whole media apparatus entirely designed to be dependent on advertising revenue - and thus wary of ‘scaring the horses’ with radical politics. The disadvantages reach an absurd pitch when we descend to the eccentricities of the electoral commission. In 1995, this body declared the CPGB and Socialist Party in England and Wales unable to stand under our own names (the commission, at the time, notoriously included two of the most rabid anti-Militant witch-hunters in the Labour Party).

SPEW at least get to stand as Socialist Alternative; conversely, the EC has handed the entire franchise for the word ‘communist’ over to the UK’s largest Brezhnev-nostalgia outfit, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. The definition of ‘communism’, you would think, would be the property of communists, to settle amongst ourselves. Alas, no - it apparently falls in the remit of a small handful of career politicians, to whom the fact that the CPB is obviously a social democratic organisation is simply irrelevant (as well as the inconsistency with SPEW). This is the fate of the democratic rights the workers’ movement, through centuries of determined struggle, won from the bourgeoisie - death by a thousand paper cuts.

There are Ashcrofts for all the bourgeois parties, including the bourgeois workers’ party. They may not use the same scams, or the same tax havens; they may have a little more nous in concealing their shenanigans, or modesty in proliferating them. Nevertheless, they are there - and they will remain there until the organised working class can force a radically democratic transformation of Britain, removing all obstacles to popular sovereignty, from the obsequious media to the gerrymandering of elections, to the ominous threat of state repression. Communists strive for the democratisation of all spheres of social life.