Lord Ashcroft tells Labour activists election is party's to lose
Former Conservative Party treasurer Lord Ashcroft has told an audience of Labour Party activists: "I remain a proud tax avoider."
Instead of criticism, the peer earned a polite round of applause.
He hastily added that he paid the equivalent of his tax bill to charity, at the Fabian Society fringe meeting.
During one of the most surreal spectacles of this year's Labour conference, he said he thought the next election was Ed Miliband's to lose.'Entrenched perceptions'
Lord Ashcroft, who was sharing a platform with senior Labour figures, including John Denham, said he had been impressed by the Labour leader's conference speech, which he had watched from the balcony at the Brighton Centre.
End Quote Lord Ashcroft
We could see the closest election in 40 years”
"I enjoyed the speech. I thought he delivered it well. He was self-deprecating and handled humour extremely well. Unfortunately for him, I doubt it will go very far towards convincing a sceptical public about his qualities as a leader."
Lord Ashcroft, a former Tory Party treasurer who has donated millions to the party, has reinvented himself in recent years as a widely respected pollster and internet politics magnate.
He did not have good news for the Labour leader from his latest batch of focus groups, saying his researchers "regularly hear words like 'out of his depth' and 'not as good as his brother'".
"Infuriating though this must be to you all, it shows how hard it is to change perceptions of a leader once they are entrenched," he said.
He said Labour had been lulled into a false sense of security by the mass defection of Lib Dem voters after the last election, but the party had still not done enough to regain voters' trust on the economy.
He also attacked Mr Miliband's announcement of plans to freeze gas and electricity bills, which he called a "form of price control" that was "doomed" to fail.'Notorious'
But despite all of that, he added, he still thought the next election was Labour's to lose.
"For many swing voters, Labour's great virtue is that its heart is in the right place. If Labour is the party that understands people, the Tories are the party who will take tough decisions even if they are unpopular. When Labour could claim a monopoly on both those things, the party was unbeatable."
He said his polling in marginal seats showed a "great swing to the Labour Party", but added that, as polling day approached, "we could see the closest election in 40 years".
The peer, who until 2010 was not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, ended by speaking about his humble origins and his belief in the creation of wealth.
He said he had recently spoken to senior Labour figures, including former campaigns chief Tom Watson and frontbencher Michael Dugher, about how good it would be for the parties to work together.
"From my own point of view, yes, I am a notorious tax avoider and, I'd like you to know, in the confidence of this room, that I still am and I'm proud of it," he told the meeting, to laughter.
He added: "Every year, just before the end of the tax year, I see what my taxable income is and I give it to charity."
But he could not resist a final battle cry to round off the meeting, telling the Labour faithful: "I remain a proud tax avoider."