Report into Misleading Electoral AdvertisingSlams Conservatives, Labour and Libs Dems for Dirty Tricks on the Doorstep
Reform Political Advertising campaign report reveals scale of deceptive literature in the runup to the May local elections, as Green Party calls for greater regulation
A newly released report from campaign group Reform Political Advertising – a non-partisan organisation campaigning for honesty and transparency in print and digital campaign ads – has delivered a scathing review of the conduct exhibited by the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats’ electioneering in the runup to yesterday’s local elections.
The fourth edition of the annual review, entitled ‘Lies, Defamation, Deceit and Incompetence’, released today, sets out “the worst examples of current vote-seeking advertising in the shape of leaflets and digital ads in various forms’” The report highlights a string of instances where parties have fallen short of expected standards.
The report notes that the instances listed, which are not exhaustive, go against promises made by major parties to the electorate. It outlines that the main three political parties responsible for the fall in standards ‘must first recognise the damage that is being done to their own reputations, to politics generally, and to the democratic process in particular’.
While the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) code of conduct regulates commercial marketing, stipulating that ‘Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation’, political advertising in the UK remains largely unregulated.
The Government website states that while Ofcom regulates party-political broadcasts, ‘non-broadcast political advertising (which includes in leaflets and newspapers or on social media sites) is largely exempt from regulation’. Also, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) which enforces advertising codes across companies and third-sector bodies, similarly exempts ‘non-broadcast political advertising which principally aims to influence voters in local, regional, national or international elections or referendums’.
Conservative Con Artists
Described in the report as exhibiting a ‘regular desperately low standard of electoral campaigning’, the Conservative Party has repeatedly been the subject of criticism for ongoing misrepresentation and underhanded attempts to sway voters, and the runup to the May locals was no different.
The Party was criticised in March for sending a ‘newspaper’ style A4 political leaflet to voters’ homes in Herefordshire, resembling the local Herefordshire Times publication. The Chair of the North Herefordshire Conservative Association defended the literature, saying that it “clearly identifies” it as being from the Conservatives. While there is a legal requirement for parties to include the name and address of origin, the Reform Political Advertising report notes that in this case it was done in “type so small as to be essentially invisible”.
Hereford Times Editor John Wilson dismissed the leaflets at the time as “nothing more than party political propaganda”, adding “in deliberating mimicking the look of an independent local newspaper they undermine trust in politicians and objective journalism”.
The Party were also found to have engaged in misleading activity in North Tyneside. First identified in 2021, the Conservative councillor in the area established a ‘fake news’ Facebook page, ‘North Shields Life’, which exclusively pushed out pro-Conservative or anti-Labour news. The page is still running, and still publishing stories critical of Labour council members.
The report also draws attention to a letter written by ‘former school teacher’ Chris Johnston, which was promoted in North Tyneside, pointing to the apparent dangers of electing an independent over the local Conservative councillor. The letter fails to mention, however, that Chris Johnston is also a Conservative Party candidate.
Lastly in Norwich, a Labour-led area, the Conservatives were forced to apologise for releasing fliers telling people that they ‘don’t need to take any photo ID in order to vote’. As part of the Elections Bill, mandatory photo ID was required for the first time in these elections, and reports are already indicating that numerous people have been turned away from polling stations for not having the correct ID.
In the spotlight this year, the report draws specific attention to ads produced by the Labour Party, which has been under sustained criticism for engaging in “dirty” political advertising over the course of this campaign.
In April, they released an online attack ad against Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, asking: ‘Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? – Rishi Sunak doesn’t’. The ad hominem advert was widely condemned both externally and from Labour MPs. Barry Gardener, MP for Brent North, wrote in the Independent afterwards that “If we blur the distinction between policy and person, we descend into the gutter. Child abuse is a sickening crime, not an instrument to be weaponised against a political opponent”.
The Reform Political Advertising report highlights that, if this advert were within ASA’s remit, that ‘no amount of explanatory context or positioning, from any source’ could reasonably make the case that the Prime Minister doesn’t think people who sexually abuse children should go to prison.
Labour have engaged in similarly targeted attacks against Conservative MPs over the ongoing national sewage scandal, releasing ads claiming a string of MPs ‘think it’s right to allow raw sewage to be pumped into’ local rivers.
The issue with this, the report claims, is less in the Conservatives’ management of the sewage crisis, which it notes as being “woeful”, nor is it against the concept of attack ads themselves, per se. The problem it focuses on is with the specific language used, that whichever MP is mentioned in the extensive campaign “thinks it’s right” that sewage be dumped into their local rivers, stating that ‘as with the ‘Rishi’ version of this campaign, we do not believe that documentary evidence is available to support the ‘thinks it’s right’ assertion’
Lib Dem Deception
Finally, the Liberal Democrats, who have over the years repeatedly fallen foul of accurate representation of polling data on leaflets, were caught engaging in the same activity this year.
In Sheffield, three local councillors were asked to apologise for misleading the public by issuing leaflets which claimed that the constituency council was ‘Labour-led’. There are 84 councillors in Sheffield City Council, so a party would only have overall control if it had 42 councillors, whereas Labour held only 39 seats.
The chart, while correctly representing the council seats held by Labour (39), Lib Dem (29), and Conservative (1), also completely missed out the Green Party, who held 14 council seats. The report highlights that the intention of the leaflet was to ‘turn the vote into a two-horse race; any means by which Green votes can be reduced, including misleading by omission, similarly reduces the chance of a Labour/ Green alliance and controlling position’.
Draining the Sewer
YouGov polling from 2019 and 2020 shows that 87% of the UK population believes that political advertising is already regulated, or that it should be, and several regulatory bodies have expressed a desire to see a tightening of rules over what political parties can get away with. The Electoral Commission has stated that misleading campaign techniques risk undermining trust in elections, and the ASA agrees that “claims in political advertising should be regulated”.
In 2020, the cross-party House of Lords committee ‘Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust’ unanimously recommended that a code of conduct in addressing the content of campaign material should be agreed upon between political parties and overseen by the ASA, Ofcom, Information Commissioners Office, and the Electoral Commission, and should be implemented before the next general election.
The committee report outlined that ‘The relevant experts in the ASA, the Electoral Commission, Ofcom and the UK Statistics Authority should co-operate through a regulatory committee on political advertising. Political parties should work with these regulators to develop a code of practice for political advertising, along with appropriate sanctions, that restricts fundamentally inaccurate advertising during a parliamentary or mayoral election, or referendum.’
But the Government has, to date, failed to agree to the recommendations. In a response, it released a statement arguing that ‘It would have a chilling effect on freedom of speech to have political campaigning ‘pre-vetted’ or censored during an election or referendum campaign.’
Introducing a code of conduct is the ultimate aim of the Reform Political Advertising coalition, and is already supported by the Green Party, who so far are the only major party to have signed up to the initiative. In a video statement, Green Party co-leader in England and Wales told RPA that “whether it’s complaining about dodgy bar charts or outright lies about other candidates, some politicians use misleading tactics, and it damages trust in politics as a whole’.
While the Greens have already backed the proposal, other parties are also seemingly sympathetic. Plaid Cymru’s Cabinet Office spokesperson, Hywel Williams, told Byline Times “A decent society depends on honesty. We tell our children not to lie. We expect our colleagues, friends, and family to tell us the truth. Politics should be no different.”
“My party support attempts to codify standards when it comes to how politicians communicate with the electorate. New rules should include independent oversight and appropriate sanctions, so that there is no ambiguity and that there are clear consequences for those who lie to the public.”
The Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats did not respond to requests for comment, or confirm to Byline Times whether they would back a code of conduct in Political Advertising ahead of the 2024 general election.