In an exclusive interview, Labour MP Stephen Kinnock questions why nothing has been done about allegations of electoral wrongdoing in the 2016 Referendum and speaks about how his new parliamentary inquiry will be on the case.
The MP convening a parliamentary group to safeguard the future of our democracy is wondering “whether somebody somewhere in Westminster or Whitehall is looking to cover things up” over wrongdoing in the EU Referendum.
Labour’s Stephen Kinnock will chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Electoral Campaigning Transparency when it meets for the first time next week.
It comes in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw the harvesting of 87 million people’s Facebook data; as well as the referral to the Met Police and National Crime Agency (NCA) of the Brexit campaigns – Vote Leave and Leave.EU – and individuals associated with them, following breaches of electoral law.
The cross-party committee will launch an inquiry and produce a green paper recommending changes in the Autumn. Campaign finance will be a key area of investigation.
It really has become a double-edged sword and there is a dark side to it and I fear that, at the moment, the darker forces of social media are triumphing over the more positive role it can play.Stephen Kinnock MP
In an interview with Byline Times at his Westminster office, Mr Kinnock said he believes that the lack of any attempt by the Government to investigate whether the 2016 EU Referendum and the 2015 and 2017 General Elections could have been tainted by electoral breaches, may well point to something darker.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” he said.
“But I did genuinely start to wonder whether somebody somewhere in Westminster or Whitehall is looking to cover things up because the country is already heavily destabilised, divided, polarised by what’s happened since June 2016 and it’s possible that somebody somewhere just wanted to put a lid on the whole thing and it’s possible that the Electoral Commission was somehow influenced, even the police, who knows.
“I simply do not know but, when there is a vacuum and action isn’t being taken, that of course opens up all sorts of concerns around why?”
In early 2017, the MP received a tip-off “from somebody who was very senior in the ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’ campaign” who told him he was “absolutely convinced” that the Leave campaigns were guilty of transgressions. Mr Kinnock wrote to the election watchdog the Electoral Commission and to the Met Police, making the case for a full investigation into the allegations, but neither were in a hurry to reply with anything robust.
He believes the same stalemate is continuing now, another two years on.
Although Leave.EU’s co-founder Arron Banks was referred to the NCA for allegations of criminal offences last November, Byline Times understands that it first started looking into his finances and Russian connections over a year ago, in Spring 2018.
Where you are offering somebody an engagement on Facebook based on a Premier League football ad as a trojan horse for finding out their opinions, their values in a more political context… That is simply manipulative, deceptive and morally wrong.Stephen Kinnock MP
Mr Kinnock said the NCA has “taken far too long” in assessing the referral and worries “that this whole thing is being kicked into the long grass by them as well”.
“I just hope that a decision hasn’t been taken somewhere to wait until the UK has left the EU before drilling down further or before something happens,” he added.
“Our faith and trust in democracy and our institutions has been shaken to its core, if we add to that faith and trust in our investigatory authorities to actually do their job and ensure that justice is done, that then becomes a question mark over the rule of law itself.”
Second Referendum Not a Credible Option
Mr Kinnock said he is chairing the new APPG because “as a democrat, I feel passionately that we have to fix this problem”.
“Dodgy money and dirty data” – the issues the group will be examining – should matter to the ‘man or woman in the street’ because citizens must be allowed to make informed decisions, he told Byline Times.
An example of this is the public knowing who funds adverts, because “he who pays the piper chooses the tune”. The relationship between the person paying the piper and the piper must be transparent, Mr Kinnock said.
“Nobody likes to have the wool pulled over their eyes. You cannot be in a situation where you are offering somebody an engagement on Facebook based on a Premier League football ad as a trojan horse for finding out their opinions, their values in a more political context. That is simply manipulative, deceptive and morally wrong.
“There’s something about human nature which gives us a bias towards believing what we read on a screen. That means it is the responsibility of those who are producing that information, not just to act as platforms, but to act as publishers of what’s out there.”
The MP for Aberavon, who is the son of former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, warned that, if there is another General Election this year, “we are a million miles away from where we need to be in terms of having a watchdog with teeth, of having transparency around data, and in terms of having clarity about the rules on campaign finance”.
However, he was keen to emphasise that the APPG’s work would “look forwards not back” and that he is not advocating for a second referendum.
“There is a real challenge we have here, which is: how do you demonstrate that there is a causal link between information that somebody consumed, that was either based on an abuse of data or on dodgy money, and the way that person voted at the ballot box?” he said.
“In my opinion, it is impossible to demonstrate that link. I don’t think re-running the referendum is a credible option. We have to look forward and future-proof the system.”
Real-Life Consequences of Digital World
Although the remit of the APPG is limited, Mr Kinnock hopes it will be a springboard for a wider debate about the “real-life consequences” of the distortions created by social media.
“The way in which elections and referenda are run is just the tip of the iceberg… what I hope is that we will also open up a broader debate about fake news, about the misuse of information, about the way in which social media can be used to twist a particular story and, when that impacts on people who may not be particularly psychologically stable, the way it acts as a touchpaper,” he said.
“We need to also demonstrate that there is a link between the information that is put out there and real-life consequences.
“Whilst everyone recognises the value social media and the internet brings in terms of engagement and participation, it really has become a double-edged sword and there is a dark side to it and I fear that, at the moment, the darker forces of social media are triumphing over the more positive role it can play.”
I just hope that a decision hasn’t been taken somewhere to wait until the UK has left the EU before drilling down further or before something happens.Stephen Kinnock MP
Kyle Taylor, director of the campaign group Fair Vote Project – which will act as the APPG’s secretariat – said its inquiry will not drag on beyond this year because of its urgency.
It will focus on “quick, uncontroversial wins” and common-sense changes which will “give quick confidence to voters”.
“We are over a year on from the original whistleblowers’ allegations and nothing’s been done,” he told me.
Mr Taylor believes this is because politicians, in both the Government and Opposition, do not want to risk being seen as de-legitimising the referendum result. But, the work of the APPG, he said, is about safeguarding democracy, not the Brexit vote.
“There’s no oxygen left for anything else,” he said. “If you’re not talking about stopping Brexit at the moment, there’s no room for the nuts and bolts issues that really matter. To not be able to do two things at once, as a society, is deeply worrying.”