UK’s elections watchdog has been urged to investigate "dark money" used to flood social media with anti-Labour attack ads. - Dispatch Weekly

February 26, 2021 - Reading time: 4 minutes

UK’s elections watchdog has been urged to investigate “dark money” used to flood social media with anti-Labour attack ads.The UK Electoral Commission has been asked to investigate allegations that non-party campaign groups worked together to flood social media with adverts against the Labour Party.

As openDemocracy recently revealed, so-called “third party” campaign groups have spent more than £700,000 attacking Jeremy Corbyn and Labour policies by declaring themselves “dark money” groups. Now new evidence has emerged that raises questions about whether these activists worked together behind the scenes.

Under UK electoral law, these campaign groups are prohibited from joining forces to circumvent statutory spending limits. The group, led by Tory activist Jennifer Powers, has spent £65,000 on dozens of adverts attacking Jeremy Corbyn and Labour for housing policy, without any declared donations. Powers has denied working with anyone and told the Daily Mirror she had only an “amateur interest in living” and it was an operation “at the kitchen table.”

But emails obtained by the Daily Mail and shared with the Daily Mirror show striking similarities to a campaign led by a former adviser to Boris Johnson.

The Fair Tax Campaign, founded by Johnson’s former chief of staff and former deputy campaign manager, is only two months away from the 2019 election.

He just happens to have an amateur interest in housing policy, but he abides by the rules of the Electoral Commission,” he added. Emails sent to the Electoral Commission by the Fair Tax Campaign, a formally registered group, were sent in almost identical language to emails from Johnson’s former chief of staff and former deputy campaign manager.

The Powers’ campaign website has now been taken offline, but the site is still accessible via the Internet archive. Alex Crowley said the Fair Tax Campaign follows the same privacy guidelines as the campaign’s former chief of staff and deputy campaign manager. An analysis of the websites of both campaigns revealed that their privacy policies were more than 70% identical and that the text did not appear online on any other page.

Unlock Democracy director Tom Brake wrote in a report: ‘More than a dozen third party campaigns that had spent large sums on the 2019 election have reported that they had not received any declared individual donations and do not need to provide information to the Electoral Commission about donors. The Powers and Crowley campaigns stopped buying Facebook ads immediately after the general election, but not the Fair Tax Campaign. British election campaigns are anonymously funded by US-style super parties. The former MP wrote to the Electoral Commission (May 30) calling for an investigation and raising questions about their funding. Brake, who lost his seat in the House of Commons at the 2019 general election, added that while donations had been collected for the election, the sums raised and spent by these groups after receiving a single donation of 7,500 pesos  were “astonishing.”

British electoral law has strict rules for coordination between political campaigns, and all campaigns involved must declare their spending jointly. Joint work must be explained and the campaigns associated with it must jointly state their expenditure and the source of funding.

Crowley, who left Number 10 just months before the election, was reported to have been working on a sham grassroots campaign to push for a Brexit deal. Dominic Cummings’ Brexit deal was branded a breach of the law for failing to declare joint work on it after the Brexit referendum.

The Guardian reported that Alex Crowley co-ran the Facebook Mainstream Network campaign with Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby, who co-organised three Conservative election campaigns. One of Facebook’s Fair Tax ads was banned after the campaign failed to label it as a political message.

DW Staff

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