Monday, 28 November 2011

Was It the Astroturfers Wot Won It?

One thing about any election is the amount of waste paper they cause to arrive through your door. At least the rest of the time you get phone numbers that will result in high calorie food being delivered to your residence.

One leaflet that was delivered to homes in at least part of Nottingham (think Nottingham South mainly, I certainly didn't see it up north) was this one -

(click for big version, fairly big file mind)

It was the second in a series of two, there was an earlier edition sent out around 18 March. The one above was sent out some weeks later.

Now electoral law states that any candidate is limited in their spending for campaigning and has to declare all expenses spent after the date that the election is declared, which is normally also the date that anybody declaring themselves as standing in the election officially becomes a candidate. For the 2011 local elections this date was 25 March, therefore, if you were standing in that election and you send out a leaflet before this date you don't have to declare it, send one after and you do and its cost counts as part of your limited election expenses allowed.

Another requirement of election law is that certain information must be included on the leaflet, including the names and addresses of the printer and the promoter of the leaflet and details of any 'person on behalf of whom the material is being published'. If you look closely you'll see our above leaflet has been promoted on behalf of the 'ConDem Campaign'.

Or has it? If you check the link to the older version you'll see that suspicions were already raised. For a start the promoter is said to be Carole McCulloch, now one of the Labour members for Aspley.

I have since had sight* of another elected Labour councillor's declared expenses which includes a payment of £43.60 for '2nd ConDem Leaflet', the supplier being listed as 'Nottingham Labour'. A note says this was calculated from an invoice for £1993 issued to 'Nottingham Labour Party'. The invoice comes from 'Digital Printing Services', who are at least properly named on the leaflet.

So, putting all that together, it looks very much like our leaflet was not prepared for the 'ConDem Campaign' at all but was in fact a Nottingham Labour Party product. Unless of course they are referring to a completely different '2nd ConDem leaflet' I suppose.

So what Nottingham Labour seems to have done is to send out a bunch of leaflets which claim to be from a fictitious** grass-roots campaign, the motivation presumably being to attract non-Labour voters who wouldn't respond to an openly partisan campaign. Nottingham South is known to be a bit woolly for the Labour Party so you can see how such an approach might make a bit of a difference. There's a phrase for this sort of thing in the trade and that phrase is 'astro-turfing' (from false 'grass-roots' see). The classic and most successful example of this technique is 'The Taxpayers' Alliance' who frequently manage to get quoted as an expert source in newspaper articles despite being an obvious Tory front.

The thing is, this isn't only dishonest and underhand it also breaches election law. The law is quite clear that any election leaflet must include an imprint naming anyone on whose behalf the leaflet is produced and, in this case, it appears pretty clear that that would be Nottingham Labour Party.

A breach of this condition is a criminal offence so what are the chances of Cllr McCulloch getting a knock at the door from the rozzers? Sadly none, it is more than six months since the offence took place and what's more, JoCo is Chairman of the Police Authority.

* Decided not to post it up as there may be privacy issues that I don't really want to deal with. Anybody involved with this leaflet can see from the figures quoted that I'm not making it up.

** At least I presume they don't exist, I couldn't find anything on them. If anybody is a genuine member please feel free to get in touch, you can invite me to a meeting.

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