Former Labour MP Ian Lucas explains why we still need answers on electoral wrongdoing and data antics during the EU Referendum.
As a member of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee in the last Parliament, I regarded Elizabeth Denham and the Information Commission as an ally.
Our inquiry into disinformation and fake news was not popular with the Conservative Government under Theresa May or Boris Johnson and a series of ministers made uncomfortable appearances before us, sticking to a prescribed script.
In essence, this was: “don’t mention Brexit” and, if you do, we will point out that we don’t believe the referendum result was in any way affected by the electoral law and data issues around the subject. Furthermore, you have no evidence of “successful” interference by overseas Governments (code for Russia) and we would really prefer it you didn’t go on about it.
The regulators, however, were more receptive.
The elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, carried out a number of investigations into the conduct of the 2016 EU Referendum, with variable outcomes. Though it did find that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings’ Vote Leave campaign had broken electoral law, it made some baffling decisions too. For instance, how on earth was the work of US political lobbyists, Goddard Gunster, carried out for Nigel Farage and Arron Banks’ Leave.EU campaign not linked to the referendum?
I felt that, prior to 2019, the Information Commissioner – which aims to uphold information rights in the public interest – was bullish. Many of the issues around Facebook data and Cambridge Analytica provoked a more aggressive response, including the raiding of the now defunct Cambridge Analytica offices to secure evidence. Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner, appeared to give full and frank responses when giving evidence to the DCMS Select Committee and also genuinely concerned about the serious privacy and data issues which we were investigating.
Our inquiries, in particular, explored the possibility of data sharing on a large scale between different leave campaigns during the 2016 Referendum. AIQ, a company used for digital campaigning by the Vote Leave campaign, was also used by other campaigns including BeLeave, Veterans for Britain and those associated with the Democratic Unionist Party. The Electoral Commission found that Vote Leave and BeLeave coordinated their campaigns and fined Vote Leave for breaking electoral law. Was there similar coordination on data sharing?
I asked the question to Jeff Silvester of AIQ when he gave evidence to the Select Committee. He was concerned and well appreciated the question’s significance. He said: “If it was something we did mistakenly then that is a problem for us. If it is something we did not know about and was provided by a campaign… then certainly that is something the Electoral Commission would need to know.” It is also something that the Information Commission would need to know.
What is so striking about the Leave campaigns during the 2016 Referendum is that the relationship between them was so close and intertwined. AIQ was actually introduced to Vote Leave by a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, Mark Gettleson, as confirmed by Silvester in the same evidence session – flatly contradicting the line given by Dominic Cummings to the Observer that he discovered it “on the internet”. Brittany Kaiser, then of Cambridge Analytica, spoke at a Leave.EU briefing event earlier in the campaign.
We know of the background involvement of Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer in Cambridge Analytica and SCL and, from the evidence given to the DCMS Select Committee, that AIQ’s main client for the years from its inception in 2013 was, of course, SCL – which we know is so closely related to Cambridge Analytica.
The Committee wanted to know if data sharing between the different leave campaigns had happened. We asked the Information Commission and were told by Denham’s deputy, James Dipple-Johnstone, in an evidence session in April 2019 that we would hear by the autumn of 2019. We are still waiting for the answer to that question. We are also still waiting for decisions by the Metropolitan Police on questions referred to them by the Electoral Commission in 2018 in connection with the 2016 Referendum.
These issues are important because they relate to issues that are about to form part of the new Parliament’s agenda on “online harms”, in which regulators are proposed to play the central supervisory role. Are they sufficiently rigorous, speedy and effective to command public confidence?
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This question has been raised following the Information Commission’s recent decision not to recommend action on “real-time bidding”, despite its acceptance of the data breaches involved.
In the context of a Conservative Government with an overwhelming majority, we need regulators who are prepared, where appropriate, to challenge Government. This is especially so when the Prime Minister and his main advisor, Dominic Cummings, were so central to the Vote Leave campaign which is still being investigated.
Finally, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office, asked AIQ to run his personal campaign for the Conservative Party leadership in June 2016. What particular asset did AIQ possess that made it appropriate for this role? Given Gove’s present position, I think he should tell us.