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Monday, February 22, 2021

Alleged abuses make the case for a beefed up Electoral Commission

The Mirror reports that the UK’s elections watchdog has been urged to investigate whether ‘third party’ campaign groups collaborated to flood social media with anti-Labour attack ads:

Campaign groups spent as much as £700,000 on ads attacking Jeremy Corbyn and Labour policies during the 2019 election campaign, without declaring any of their donors.

But they’re banned from joining forces to plan such campaigns to get around legal spending limits.

The Mirror revealed on Friday that a group run by Tory activist Jennifer Powers had spent £65,000 on dozens of ads attacking Jeremy Corbyn and Labour on housing policy.

But she flatly denied collaborating with anyone else, insisting she merely had an “amateur interest” in housing, and it was a “kitchen table” operation.

But emails obtained by OpenDemocracy reveal striking similarities with another campaign run by a former Boris Johnson aide.

The Fair Tax Campaign, founded by Alex Crowley, a former close aide of Boris Johnson, ran around 100 ads worth £63,105 across just two months leading up to the 2019 poll.

Mr Crowley helped run Boris Johnson's successful campaign for the Tory leadership, and was his political director while he was Mayor of London.

Emails sent by Powers and Crowley to the Electoral Commission to formally register the groups were sent just a day apart, and included almost identical language.

Both included the phrase: ”Having reviewed [my/our] budget I can confidently say that our campaign will comfortably exceed the spending threshold for registering a third party campaign..."

And both included the phrase: “Given it would be reasonable and prudent to assume that a General Election is imminent, and therefore any issue campaigning will take place in the context of a live electoral contest….”

Asked about the similarities, Ms Powers told the Mirror: “Don't remember them, never spoke to them.”

She told the Mirror on Friday: “I did follow all the rules that are set out by the electoral commission.

“I just happen to have, I guess, an amateur interest in housing policy.”

Mr Cowley said: “The Fair Tax Campaign complied with the strict rules set by the Electoral Commission, and Facebook ’s advertising policies.”

Additionally, analysis of both campaigns’ websites revealed their privacy policies were more than 70% identical - but that the text appears on no other site online.

In a letter to Electoral Commission chief Bob Posner, Unlock Democracy director Tom Brake urged the watchdog to investigate.

He wrote: “More than a dozen third-party campaigns that had spent heavily in the 2019 election reported that they had received no funding above the £7,500 threshold for declaring individual donations, and therefore did not have to supply details of any donor to the Electoral Commission.”

He added that the scale of donations which didn’t have to be declared was “astounding.”

Mr Brake said the near-identical texts “could be a complete coincidence but I consider it would be in the public’s interest to seek to establish this.

“Particularly as joint-campaigning or coordination in other areas, over messaging for instance, needs to be accurately reported.”

This is potentially another example of the Electoral Commission not having the resources and powers to deal with possible abuses of process in elections and referendums. And yet there are moves within the Tory Party to weaken its influence or abolish it altogether. That would ne a disaster for democracy in this country.
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