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A very British coup; British democracy up for sale

Article by Barry Quinn, Photo and copyright by Immanuel Giel  and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.

The British government under David Cameron promised to hold a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union following the 2015 General Election which saw the Conservatives returned to power with a majority.  For forty years the United Kingdom had been a reluctant member of the European Union with both main parties, Labour and Conservative, at different moments containing significant opposition to our membership. The British people had become increasingly hostile towards the EU and felt it was an organization whose institutions were undemocratic, remote and even corrupt.

Since then, information has emerged regarding the conduct of the various campaigns and individuals involved which has brought the legitimacy of the referendum into question, and has challenged the foundations of British democracy. Tales of overspending, inappropriate use of data, investigations by the elections watchdog and the police have shown to the world that the famously reliable British democracy is fractured and vulnerable. Allegations were not just put against those who voted to leave the EU but also those who campaigned to remain. In this article we will explore the key actors and the allegations made against them.

Once the referendum was announced, the British government led by David Cameron determined that it would formally support a vote to remain in the EU following his attempted renegotiation of UK membership. Later, his government would send a pamphlet to every UK household encouraging them to vote to remain. This was undertaken a cost to the taxpayer of £9million and contained messages virtually identical to the messages of Britain Stronger in Europe, the official campaign designated by the Electoral Commission to lead the remain campaign.

Criticism was made of this decision as it meant that the official remain campaign essentially received a £9million cash injection in addition to their spending limit. The British government did not register as a campaigner in the referendum, despite its biased and influential position, thus enabling an enormous degree of support to one side of the campaign. In principle this means the referendum was not fair, and this was before the campaign proper even began.

Vote Leave, the campaign led by Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and the former Labour MP, Gisela Stuart, was awarded designation status by the Electoral Commission before the referendum. The campaign was based in Westminster and was dominated by Conservative MPs and staffers. Its famous ‘take back control’ slogan and pledges for increased spending on the NHS, a misleading figure of £350m, were the hallmarks of its campaign.

There were many leave campaigns and organizations operating aside from Vote Leave. In order to facilitate equal spending limits between leave and remain, the Electoral Commission determined that campaigns on either side would be able to support one another but should not have a shared campaign plan as this could lead to overspending and an unfair advantage to one side of the campaign.

Vote Leave undertook the services of AggregateIQ. The Canadian firm linked to Cambridge Analytica specialized in online campaigning. The firm provided Vote Leave with a comprehensive and forensic voter identification and analysis service that would enable Vote Leave to target individuals through online campaigns. This would include millions of voters with whom the major parties and campaigning organizations had not previously engaged.

Darren Grimes established a small leave campaign called ‘BeLeave’ dedicated to encouraging more young people and students to support a vote to leave the European Union. It was initially a small campaign based on producing videos and graphics to make the case for leaving the European Union. However, Grimes worked frequently from the Vote Leave office and formally registered with the Electoral Commission, with the assistance of Vote Leave, in May 2016.

The spending limit for the EU referendum was determined by the Electoral Commission, with the main group on each side having up to £7million to spend in total. Towards the end of the referendum, Vote Leave was fast approaching its spending limit. However, it still needed to reach more voters in order to deliver victory for the leave campaign. Grimes received an email from a Vote Leave official offering to make a donation to the BeLeave campaign he set up. The curious element in all of this is that Grimes asked Vote Leave to make the donation to AggregateIQ, the same firm employed by Vote Leave during the referendum.

It is curious that a small campaign led by a 22-year-old student would be in a place where it was able to receive such a large donation and have established connections to an international online campaigning consultancy firm. Since the referendum, Grimes was given a role with Brexit Central. The Editor at Large is one Matthew Elliot, the former chief executive of Vote Leave. It is clear that a close and personal relationship exists between Grimes and Elliot, one that was perhaps established in concert during the EU referendum in the Vote Leave headquarters.

The Electoral Commission concluded in its investigation that “The BeLeave campaign website was set up by Vote leave, its content was created by Vote Leave, he (Grimes) consulted Vote Leave on campaigning and Vote Leave actively sought funding for his work.” This would lead to the Electoral Commission determining that the ‘acting in concert’ rule had been breached between Vote Leave and BeLeave, and meant that the leave campaign overspent the legal limit set during the referendum.

Vote Lave was fined £61,000 by the Electoral Commission following the investigation, which found “significant evidence” of coordination with BeLeave.  The Electoral Commission found that BeLeave spent more than £675,000 on the same service provider, AggregateIQ.  Matthew Elliot, the former Chief executive of Vote Leave, accused the Electoral Commission of “wholly inaccurate” findings.  The Electoral Commission thus determined that the official campaign, led by British cabinet ministers, overspent by £500,000, and one of their officials, David Halsall, has been referred to the police. Grimes himself was fined £20,000.

Vote Leave Billboard
“Vote Leave” hoardings poster in Salford. © Copyright Neil Theasby and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The entire British referendum has been brought into question as a result of the findings of the electoral watchdog, the Electoral Commission. The campaign itself promised the UK health service, the NHS, an extra £350million. Immediately following the referendum, spokespersons for the leave campaign, including Nigel Farage, expressed their opposition to additional monies being allocated to the NHS, despite earlier claims made during the referendum itself. Given that many British voters strongly support the NHS and want to see improved funding arrangements, the duplicity of the leave campaign was brought to the fore.

What is extremely alarming in this case is that serving British cabinet ministers served in a decision-making capacity on the board of Vote Leave and took part in the political and strategic decision making of the campaign. It has now emerged that Vote Leave did act in a corrupt fashion that has brought the legitimacy of the referendum into question. The decision by the Electoral Commission means the integrity of those serving cabinet ministers is now in doubt and the trust between the British people and the government is broken.

Leave. EU was established by the insurance tycoon Aaron Banks, who famously donated £1 million to UKIP prior to the 2015 General Election,  Richard Tice the property magnate and Andy Wigmore, the UK’s Trade Envoy to Belize. Leave.EU was supported by UKIP leader Nigel Farage. During the contest for designation to lead the leave campaign, Leave.EU decided to endorse Grassroots Out. The campaign continued to operate during the referendum, often coming into conflict with the designated Vote Leave campaign. Known for their bullish and often controversial campaign methods, Leave.EU attracted much media attention during campaign.

In April 2017, the Electoral Commission determined that it would investigate Leave.EU as they felt reasonable grounds existed to suspect that offences may have been committed, notably that Leave.EU may have taken impermissible donations and may have submitted an inaccurate reporting analysis to the Electoral Commission. Following the investigation it was concluded that Leave.EU had received services from the controversial and now defunct campaign consultancy Cambridge Analytica. In addition the Commission found that, “Leave.EU failed to include a minimum of £77,380 in its spending return, thereby exceeding its spending limit by more than 10%. The Commission is satisfied that the actual figure was in fact greater, given the failure to report an appropriate proportion of the cost of services provided by Goodard Gunster.” In response to these findings and other information that emerged relating to the source of the funding the Electoral Commission referred the Chief Executive of Leave.EU, Liz Bilney, to the police, along with Aaron Banks and both are presently under investigation by the National Crime Agency.

Leave.EU have claimed they will be completely exonerated from these claims, and since the investigation was launched, fellow founder Richard Tice, who now chairs Leave Means Leave, claimed that Leave.EU never actually employed the services of Cambridge Analtyica. This stands in contrast to the views of the former Business Development Director of the consulting firm, Brittany Kaier, who said that Cambridge Analytica had undertaken work for Leave.EU.

A Channel 4 investigation into Cambridge Analytica found that the British consulting firm had used all manner of unethical practices.  These included the direct discrediting of political opponents and discussions around hypothetical scenarios in which political opponents’ experiences and careers would be ruined. Following the investigation it emerged that the company had improperly used the personal data of 50 million US citizens while they were employed on President Trumps election campaign.

Cambridge Analytica did not appear as a provider of services in any of the various leave campaigns’ spending returns to the Electoral Commission. The Commission’s findings in regards to Leave.EU found that the campaign had made serious breaches in electoral law. Mr Banks, the primary donor to Leave.EU, was embroiled in further controversy when questions were raised about his actual wealth and ability to fund the campaign to the degree to which he claimed he had done so.

Banks met with Russia officials in the run up to the referendum campaign with his associate Andy Wigmore to discuss mining opportunities in Russia.  Wigmore, as well as being a business associate of Banks, was also the Communications Director of Leave.EU. Banks now stands accused of using Russian money to fund his Leave.EU campaign, a practice which is illegal in the United Kingdom.  Aaron Banks claimed that all money he gave to his Leave.EU campaign was from his company Rock Services Ltd and his accumulated wealth as a result of his insurance business.  However, Banks had previously stated that this particular company did not generate an income.

Banks rigorously denied any wrongdoing and rejected the allegations in an appearance on Britain’s weekend political programme, the Andrew Marr Show. Banks claimed the money was generated in the UK despite the fact the Electoral Commission stated that it has “reasonable grounds to suspect that Rock Services did not fund the payments of £8 million.” This is an extremely serious state of affairs.

It is well known that Russian intelligence uses online intelligence and money laundering opportunities to engage in activity to undermine the west and to disrupt the order of business.  This information emerged at a time when relations between the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation were at an all time low as a result of the chemical poisoning in Salisbury, UK. The conclusions into the investigation are yet to be made public and final. However, the very fact that a prominent campaign, Leave.EU, which had the support of David Davis MP, the former Secretary of State of leaving the European Union, and Nigel Farage MEP, the former leader of UKIP, is currently facing allegations of using laundered Russian money to campaign in a British referendum is shocking.

If the allegations are found to be true it will be the biggest and most dangerous attack on British democracy in history. The entire foundation of the British electoral system will be brought into question. Whether or not the United Kingdom can indeed be regarded as a country in which free and fair referendums can take place, and indeed whether free and fair elections can take place, would be questioned.

The liabilities for corruption and malpractice were not only attributed to the leave side during the EU referendum. Although considerable media attention has been directed to the leave campaigns, various challenges and issues also existed on the remain side during the referendum. Unlike the leave side, the remain campaign was fairly unified around Britain Stronger in Europe, the campaign awarded designation by the Electoral Commission.  Will Staw, the son of former Labour Cabinet Minister Jack Straw, was the Executive Director of the Campaign.

Britain Stronger in Europe was fined by the Electoral Commission for failing to accurately report payments it had received. The fine awarded to the remain campaign was £1250 and this was paid by Open Britain, the baby of Britain Stronger in Europe.  The fine awarded to the remain campaign is significantly less than the fines awarded to the leave campaigns.  Many on the leave campaign are very unhappy about what appears to be an unfair portioning of responsibility with the Electoral Commission placing harsher remedies on the leave campaign than the remain campaign. However, what is more concerning is the relationship that existed between the official designated remain campaign and the Liberal Democrats.

The Liberal Democrats were strongly in favour of remaining in the European Union and campaigned so during the referendum. However, the Electoral Commission has found that the Liberal Democrats breached finance regulations following an investigation.  Over 80 payments were not correctly invoiced in the spending return totaling £80,000. The Electoral Commission fined the Liberal Democrats £18,000 for their inaccurate reporting.

However, one extra issue facing the remain side of the campaign also extends to the Liberal Democrats. They stand accused of selling personal data of its party members to the official remain campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe. The revelation emerged days after the General Data Protection Regulation laws, designed to improve data security in the UK, came into effect. The UK data watchdog, the Information Commissioner, has launched an investigation into the Liberal Democrats and into Britain Stronger in Europe to determine whether or not inappropriate use of data was used to campaign in the referendum.

The relationship between the Liberal Democrats and the Remain campaign is deeply concerning if those allegations are found correct. The use of data by political parties is becoming more prominent in political campaigning and voters’ trust in the political parties to manage that data responsibly is now under question. The Remain campaign also stands accused of creating a series of small campaigns to funnel £1 million pounds into them during the last few weeks of the referendum campaign. A series of companies, DDB UK Ltd, Best for Our Future, The In Crowd, Virgin Management Ltd and Wake Up and Vote were all registered towards the end of May and early June 2016. These campaigns between them received nearly £1 million pounds which was spent in the final weeks of the campaign, at precisely the same time that Britain Stronger in Europe massively increased their targeted adds on Facebook.

The very fact that the United Kingdom enables small campaigns to be established within weeks of a referendum, and with the ability to raise significant money to support campaigns, is deeply concerning. The apparently loose and laissez faire approach to oversight by regulatory bodies should concern the British electorate considerably. If the British electoral system allows such enormous flows of money apparently unchecked into its operation how can anyone have confidence in that system? There is one word appropriate to describe this state of affairs: corruption.

Following the referendum, the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign formally announced that it would be closing down. However, it transpired that it had evolved into Open Britain, a campaign pushing for membership of the European Union. The data amassed by the Remain campaign was collected for the purposes of the referendum, yet Open Britain may have continued to use this data using questionable loopholes in electoral law. The fact that the electoral watchdog has not as of yet investigated this apparent event is troublesome, especially given the UK has recently strengthened its data management laws.

Other campaigns operated during the referendum and indeed concerns have been raised about these too. Labour Leave was a campaign set up by the Labour businessman John Mills, the largest private donor to the British Labour Party, who also served as chair, and subsequently vice-chair of Vote Leave. The Labour Leave campaign claimed it was funded by Labour members and trade unionists, yet it has since emerged that it was in fact also funded by Conservative Party donors and businessmen.

Corruption, misappropriation, questionable use of data, obscure relationships and false promises were the hallmark of the British referendum on membership of the EU. The UK was once a bastion of freedom, democracy and stable government. However, the referendum on EU membership has brought all of that into doubt. A democracy cannot be called a democracy without transparency in elections and referendums. It is unclear where money came from to fund the campaigns. The relationships between the campaigns and individuals working on those campaigns is unclear. The ‘facts’ and issues put to the people by those campaigns have also been found wanting. The entire British referendum took place in an environment of fear and falsehood. Members of Parliament, business and the media are rightly now questioning the decision that was made, and whether or not the decision was made fairly and freely. The British people will be concerned about the infrastructure of their democracy; are those organizations responsible for oversight and scrutiny strong enough to do their job with existing powers, or more fundamentally are they even fit for purpose?

Information continues to emerge about all campaigns participating in the referendum and many investigations into the conduct of individuals and campaigns are ongoing. The UK is set to leave the EU in March 2019, but if it is found that the UK made its decision to leave based on information provided by criminal campaigns and corrupt individuals then surely the government of the UK needs to determine whether or not in all good conscience this decision can even be implemented.

 

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