Wednesday, 28 March 2018

An affront to democracy

Yesterday’s proceedings in the House of Commons were dominated by examination of threats to informed choice by electors both here and abroad. 

Two witnesses, whistle-blower Christopher Wylie and Paul-Olivier Dehaye, to the DCMS select committee (links here) laid out how they saw big money influencing the US presidential election and the EU referendum in this country. Paul-Olivier Dehaye, mathematician and co-founder of PersonalData.IO, gave evidence as an expert on this subject, as someone who has challenged Cambridge Analytica in the past on their use of such data. However, most attention was on the marathon session involving Wylie, a former director of research at CA. Much of the ground had already been covered by the Channel 4 interviews, but yesterday there was much more corroborative detail. Incidentally, Wylie clarified a point that had been bothering many people - why now? It turned out that he had spent over a year with Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr before the story broke, establishing the facts and presumably clearing legal hurdles. What had turned Wylie into a whistle-blower was Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election. One wonders if he would have been so forthcoming if Hillary Clinton had won, or if the media would have been so interested if someone from the losing side had owned up to dirty tricks.

In the afternoon, Liberal Democrat Tom Brake moved an emergency debate on electoral law with particular reference to that referendum. The bare text of his introductory speech is reproduced on Liberal Democrat Voice, but there were some interesting interventions.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab)
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree - I do not think he is suggesting this for 
one minute - that this will have had no effect on the outcome of the referendum?

Tom Brake
The hon. Gentleman encourages me to speculate on a matter to which it is 
difficult to respond. If these allegations, which are unproven, are true and 
£625,000 was spent illegally in a very focused campaign and, by definition, was 
targeted on a very small number of people, it is very hard to say what the effect 
might have been. That is partly what I hope any inquiries might clarify.

To expand on that: while it is improbable that any amount of arguing or nudging would have shifted the firm believers on either side of the EU argument, the margin of the majority was that narrow that the decisions of a small percentage of swing voters could have made all the difference. However, this speculation is a distraction from the main point that electoral law appeared to have been breached, and that personal data had been bought and used in a way not intended by the people to whom it related.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con)
Would the right hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that the remain campaign 
spent about one third more on the EU referendum and indeed that the Government 
spent more than £9 million of taxpayers money sending a leaflet to every house in 
the UK promoting our remaining? Could that not be seen as biased in favour of that 

But electoral law had not been broken, and while the total spent by the Remain side may have exceeded that by the Leavers, the groups involved were genuinely separate. (Indeed, one of the criticisms of the Remain campaign was that there was no clear single message and leader.)
There were two other notable speeches:

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab)
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on 
securing this emergency debate. As Members will know, I have been raising this issue and 
concern in the House for almost 18 months now, and when I first did so I was treated as a 
bit of a crank. Subsequently, however, almost every single allegation that I have used 
parliamentary privilege to put on the record in this place has proven to be correct.

This debate needs to be taken extremely seriously. It is not about who won or lost 
the referendum; it is about the integrity and security of our democracy and 
electoral system. Any of the sceptics who have cast doubt on the nature and quality of the 
evidence of the whistleblower, Chris Wylie, should watch the four hours of testimony 
that I watched today before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee: it was 
absolutely shocking and astonishing, and it should go to the heart of anybody who 
cares about our democracy.

Mr Wylie laid out clear evidence of serious lawbreaking by the leave campaign: 
not only collusion between Vote Leave and BeLeave, which is the one that has got most 
publicity, but collusion between Vote Leave and some of the other leave organisations, 
including Veterans for Britain, and indeed the DUP. Each of those organisations used 
either Cambridge Analytica - we know all about that, having heard the revelations 
last week about how it illegally harvested the Facebook data of tens of millions of 
people - or Aggregate IQ, a supposedly separate company based in Canada. It is not 
separate at all; it is all part of the same organisation. We know that 40% of Vote 
Leave’s budget was spent on Aggregate IQ and the work that it did. We still do not know 
how AIQ got that data, where the data came from or whether it was legally obtained and 

Mr Wylie provided compelling and credible evidence not only of the collusion 
but of the effectiveness of the targeted advertising campaigns that these data 
companies conduct, based on the data that they have. In the case of the referendum, 
the campaigns were targeted on 7 million voters whom the companies had carefully 
profiled as people whose opinions they could shift. In his evidence to the Committee 
today, Mr Wylie produced a staggering statistic. He said that, in his experience, the 
methods used by Cambridge Analytica and AIQ in this case would have had the 
potential to shift between 7% and 10% of the people targeted. 
Let us not forget that he was and remains a leaver. He wants Brexit to happen, 
but he does not want it to happen based on a fraud on the British electorate. [...] 
Mr Wylie also made a very worrying statement, and I think that this is the 
first time that a connection has been made between Cambridge Analytica and the Russian 
FSB via the work that it did for the Russian oil company, Lukoil.

It must be clear to everyone in the House, whatever their view on Brexit, that the 
powers and resources of the Information Commissioner and the Electoral Commission are wholly 
inadequate. If the Government were serious about getting to the truth by letting the 
commissioners do their job, we would have less of this “what-aboutery” and more action 
and support for the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner, in terms of 
their powers and, critically and more immediately, their resources. Mr Wylie has 
been working for many hours with the Information Commissioner, and one of the worrying 
things he told the Committee was that he had had to explain to the officials in that 
office what all this was about. They do not have enough technical experts. They do not 
have people who actually understand how all this works and what has been going on. In my 
view, this guy should be employed by all the global regulators, because he seems to be 
one of the few people who knows how this electoral corruption works, not only in our 
country but elsewhere. There was loads of evidence, for example, about what has been 
going on in Nigeria and in parts the Caribbean. This is not just a problem for this 


Finally, this is slightly away from the evidence given by Mr Wylie today, I have 
received other new information that also concerns me. Members will recall the dreadful 
murder of Daphne Galizia in Malta last year. At the time she was murdered, I am 
informed that Ms Galizia was investigating Pilatus Bank, which had its assets frozen 
last week owing to fears of money laundering. She was also investigating Cambridge 
Analytica and Henley & Partners, which sells citizenship in Malta, and there are other 
links with the Legatum Institute, concerns about which I raised in the House several 
months ago, and the mysterious Maltese professor, Professor Joseph Mifsud, who is named 
in an indictment by Robert Mueller’s inquiry. All those matters need to be examined 
incredibly carefully, and I want the Minister to give a full and categorical assurance 
that, given the significant British links, the Maltese authorities that are 
investigating such matters will receive the full support and co-operation they need 
from our law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)

Much of the discussion so far has been about the validity of the referendum 
vote itself, but I want to argue that this goes much deeper and wider 
than that single vote, vastly important though it is. The revelations 
by The Guardian, Channel 4 and others over the past few days go right 
to the heart of the kind of country we think we are living in. I argue 
that they demonstrate that current electoral law is woefully inadequate. 
I think they show that the regulation governing our democratic processes 
urgently needs to be updated and reformed. They show, I believe, that 
something is rotten in the state of our democracy.

The combination of big money and big data is overwhelming the chronically 
weak structures that are supposed to protect us against cheating and fraud. 
As others have said, we are trying to apply laws from the analogue era to 
the very different reality of the digital age, and it simply is not working. 
It took the Information Commissioner almost a week to get authorisation to 
get through the front door of Cambridge Analytica, during which time presumably 
the delete button had been pressed a great many times. 
The Electoral Commission, meanwhile, has been investigating claims of the 
misuse of electoral funds for almost a year. Why on earth do we not have rules 
that require donations to be reported in real time, and the same for spending? 
Why do we not have a body with more resources and real teeth? Things urgently 
need to change.

Electoral law is based on two fundamental principles. The first principle is 
that parties and candidates compete on what should be a level playing field 
in terms of resources, which is presumably why we have national and local 
spending limits in elections. 
The second principle is that elections are open and transparent, so parties 
and candidates have to be transparent in their communications with the voters 
and it is unlawful to make false claims in those communications. The allegations 
about the true nature of the relationship between Vote Leave and BeLeave suggest 
that there may well have been cheating when it comes to the first principle, 
and the investigations into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, and the spending 
of huge sums of money on micro-targeted political advertising based on data 
harvested from voters’ social media profiles, suggest that the second of 
these two principles is also under great strain in the digital age.
Frankly, Facebook’s desperate adverts on the back pages of Sunday’s newspapers, 
just a couple of days ago, suggest to me that it knows that its bubble is bursting. 
We now need to update the law to ensure that people are protected from this social 
media mega-monopoly. Just because the chief executives of Facebook and Google wear 
T-shirts to work and turn up on skateboards does not mean that they are not aggressive 
capitalists, and we need to get a bit wiser to that fact.

The law regulating campaign activity and finance, the Political Parties, Elections and 
Referendums Act 2000, was drawn up almost 20 years ago, long before Facebook or 
Twitter even existed, let alone had any role in political campaigns. It is considerably more 
difficult to ensure the compliance of adverts on social media than the compliance of adverts 
in newspapers or on billboards. Voters simply do not know what is being done with their data 
by a company that, ultimately, wants to make as much money as possible from the 
information it has on each of us. Not surprisingly, the regulators struggle to regulate.

This undoubtedly presents a complex challenge to all politicians, as social media platforms 
overtake the national and local press and media through which we have traditionally 
communicated with our electorate, but without the same level of transparency and scrutiny. 
However, it is a challenge that we must meet. The need for a reprogramming of the way parties 
and campaigns are funded could not be greater. Whether it is donations from Russian oligarchs on 
one side of the House or from former Formula 1 bosses on the other side, people are sick and 
tired of a politics that is awash with big money without proper oversight. I argue that the 
case for state funding for political parties could scarcely be stronger.

To reinforce the message that I am not tribal in this matter, I wanted to include a speech from the Conservative back benches. However, apart from nit-picking interventions, they were silent. There was a stone-walling official government reply from Chloe Smith, but the Conservatives did not seek to divide the House. So the motion, like so many others where the Government side sought to save face by not being seen to be defeated in a vote, passed without dissent.

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