The leaflet below appears to be normal Lib Dem election literature. It was one of three distributed widely over night on May2nd/3rd for the council by-election in North Richmond, in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames. You may wonder why it is titled Comments instead of Focus, but that is what Lib Dems have always called their leaflets in Richmond.
Indeed, the layout and photos are exact copies of earlier Lib Dem election leaflets. The bar chart, grumble sheet and contact details all look authentic. The writing style is credible.
But a closer inspection reveals something very worrying. The main story is completely false.
Jane Dodds will be campaigning with local Lib Dems to increase social housing in North Richmond by bringing forward plans to develop the Sainsbury’s Supermarket site at Manor Road.
The Sainsbury’s site offers an ideal opportunity for a high rise development to significantly expand social housing, building a further 550 one and two bedroom apartments on top of the Manor Road Sainsbury’s.
This is quite outrageous. The local Lib Dems were certainly not campaigning for 550 flats to be built above their local Sainsbury’s. The leaflet is a fake.
Two more similar fake leaflets were circulated before polls opened. In one the Lib Dem candidate apparently supported the use of the local Premier Inn for emergency homeless accommodation for migrants, and in the other proposed converting a pub into hostel accommodation for drug or alcohol dependent young people and for recently released prisoners, neither of which was true. We can all see where the narrative is going: references to social housing, EU migrants, homelessness, addiction and ex-cons are coupled with ‘bleeding heart’ Lib Dem concern for the vulnerable.
The leaflets do not, of course, carry an imprint, but that is a minor legal issue compared with the damage done to the democratic process. A number of local voters have admitted that they were taken in by the leaflets, decided not to vote Lib Dem as a result and voted Conservative in protest. This was a seat that we were hoping to take back from the Conservatives, but Jane Dodds lost by 146 votes.
Jane’s agent was Roger Hayes (one of Mark Pack’s local liberal heroes) and he spent much of polling day talking with the police from Special Operations and Anti-Terrorism, which we all still refer to as Special Branch. The police are taking the matter very seriously and are treating the leaflets as fraudulent. The Representation of the People Act 1983 created an offence of “undue influence” which may be relevant to this case.
Anti-terrorist officers are examining CCTV footage to try to identify who delivered the leaflets. It is most unlikely, though not impossible, that one of the main political parties would carry off a stunt like this, but it is a challenge to work out who would go to the trouble of designing, printing and distributing such convincing and subtle fakes.
* Mary Reid is the Tuesday Editor on Lib Dem Voice.