Opinion: Why the party shouldn’t be auto-phoning people

The plan for the Lib Dems to phone 250,000 people on Wednesday evening, after the conclusion of the party conference, has attracted some criticism both inside and outside the party.

If this is the big idea to come back from sending people to the US Democrats’ Convention then I’m not sure the flights were worth it. Automated phone messages were used in the 2000 Presidential election and possibly before in America. I may not have been the first in the UK to use them, but I did use them at the 2001 General Election. The results then were not particularly significant, other than sending a few Tory activists apoplectic with fury (maybe justification for using them on its own!).

However there would seem to be two strong reasons (and one less strong one) why this scheme isn’t a good idea.

Firstly it is, at best, legally ambiguous. The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR) clearly requires the prior consent of anyone to receive communications “comprising recorded matter for direct marketing purposes”.

The SNP were recently on the wrong end of an adjudication regarding these regulations, where it was confirmed by the Information Tribunal that they do apply to political parties. It should be noted, though, that their activities were slightly different from what is reported to be happening here.

The question therefore is whether these calls are for direct marketing purposes. Generally it is regarded that “genuine market research” isn’t a direct marketing purpose.

This doesn’t seem to be a technique used by market research companies to conduct political polls. Certainly it’s hard to see how the questions necessary to establish whether your sample is accurate can be put. It’s also questionable as to how much a genuine poll will be affected by having an introductory message from the party leader as is the case here – or indeed what would be the point of a message which didn’t carry any element of promoting the party.

Another key point about genuine market research is the use to which the data is put. The Information Commissioner’s guidance is that:

We are aware that political parties do not just communicate with individuals for promotional purposes.

A political party can conduct genuine research just as professional market research companies do. Parties should, however, be careful to ensure that such communications are not in reality soliciting support under the guise of research. For example, a telephone call which starts by seeking opinion and then urges support or invites contact with a candidate would be considered as a marketing call and must therefore be conducted in accordance with the PECR.

Where a political party makes a market research call with the intention of capturing certain details in order to identify those judged likely to support that party for the purpose of targeting them with marketing follow ups by mail, telephone or visit, then we consider that the original profiling call will have been made for direct marketing purposes. Again it will be caught by the PECR.

So if this exercise is to be legal, it is clear that the information obtained can’t be used for any campaigning purpose. It therefore seems a good question to ask why the party would spend the money and effort phoning 250,000 people two years before an election, when it can’t record and use the responses for any further campaigning, recruitment or fundraising purpose.

Of course the Information Commissioner’s guidance is just that. It doesn’t carry direct legal force. However the Information Commissioner makes the point that:

The Commissioner looks to political parties to respect the best practice of the marketing industry when conducting any promotional activity. It would be regrettable if parties were seen to be testing the limits of the legislation.

And in the SNP case referred to above, the Information Tribunal (in May 2006) noted that:

although the Information Commissioners guidance had been posted on his web site for some years and he took the trouble to write to each political party prior to the 2005 general election making it quite clear how he interpreted the Regulations, no political party sought to take issue with him at the time.

It isn’t clear whether these automated calls are being made to Telephone Protection Service (TPS) registered numbers. As party advice on TPS refers to the need for the party to be able to match our opponents more sophisticated use of TPS numbers it seems probable. If, as the party maintains this is a market research exercise then it would be permissible to call TPS numbers.

So the second criticism is, even if it is legal, is it sensible? Here the TPS angle is particularly relevant; at the last election the party made a significant point of the fact that it wasn’t phoning TPS registered voters. This campaign went as far as launching a website, www.stopnuisancecalls.com (which is no longer a party site), and the production of a pack of materials for local party’s to use to write to people. Even if these calls aren’t being made to TPS numbers that campaign is still relevant as it made repeated claims about respect for the rights of consumers – rights we now don’t seem to care about quite as much as we did.

This website stated (it can still be found through www.archive.org):

The Liberal Democrats respect the rights of an individual to opt-out of receiving cold-calling telephone calls The Liberal Democrats will respect and champion the rights of consumers to block cold-calling. Only if the Information Commissioner changes his previous advice [which hasn’t happened] would we even consider such telephone calls.

The campaign was picked up by numerous Lib Dem candidates who campaigned on the issue:

People register with the Telephone Preference Service because they do not want to receive nuisance calls at home…. The two other parties should respect the rights of voters and consumers”

Lynne Featherstone (now MP for Hornsey and Wood Green)

Households registered with the Telephone Preference Service are being telephoned [by Labour] on the questionable basis that they are conducting “polling” rather than “marketing”. But the numbers of voters being contacted go far beyond what is needed for a statistically significant opinion poll”

NW Hampshire Lib Dems website (PPC at the time Martin Tod, now candidate for Winchester)

We demand that the Labour and Conservative parties now demonstrate that they are not breaking the spirit or the letter of the law by using information for any campaigning purposes if they call TPS registered consumers”

Sarah Teather MP, Brent East

Dan Rogerson is delighted at the introduction of this new website (stopnuisancecalls) “it is time that the other two parties respected the rights of voters and consumers”

Dan Rogerson MP, North Cornwall

No doubt other candidates did the same. There may even be similar comments somewhere on record from Nick Clegg himself!

Having staged such a high profile campaign only a few years ago, with its calls for abiding by the spirit of the law and respecting people’s wishes, it seems very inconsistent to go back on that just a couple of years later. The motion passed on the final day of conference on Personal Freedom and Privacy talked about “implementing the principle of respect” in that regard.

As demonstrated above if our opponents spend five minutes with Google there is plenty of ammunition for them to portray us as inconsistent and hypocritical on this issue. The SNP have certainly not lost any time!

In my experience the Information Commissioner is very poor at pursuing complaints. But when a regulator fails we should campaign for them to do their job properly, or pursue the legal remedies available through the EU when a government fails to implement legislation correctly – not just say we’ll ignore it as it’s inconvenient.

Finally people say it will annoy the voters and put them off us. It probably will. A bit. But so do lots of things and I’m not sure it will be of any lasting effect. When I ran a similar exercise in 2001 I don’t recall getting any complaints. We didn’t go on to win either but for a whole host of reasons other than making automated phone calls!

* Hywel Morgan is a Liberal Democrat member and regular commenter on Lib Dem Voice.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Alix Mortimer 19th Sep '08 - 10:10am

    Agreed on pretty much every point. I personally don’t think I’d find an automated market research call annoying provided I was at least vaguely interested in the subject.

    But, while it isn’t actually illiberal (people can put the phone down), it’s against the spirit of liberalism, and it’s just such a clunky idea. The US has a notoriously hokey political culture, ticker tape, screaming crowds and all the rest of it – why the hell are we taking lessons from them in how to talk to people?

    Will someone please sack the Communications Team and give the entire budget to Charlotte Gore?

  • They could have people cold-calling, but only if they knew what they were doing. I once had someone from UKIP call me. I told him I was a member of the Green Party in the hope it would wind him up, but he didn’t actually say anything at all after that & ended the conversation, despite the fact that I was polite, & was hoping to try & get him to defend his amalgam of the Daily Mail & libertarianism. 🙂

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 19th Sep '08 - 12:08pm

    “And as for the stuff about the SNP, the difference is that what they were doing was illegal.”

    You’re rather prejudging the issue there. The Information Commissioner is currently investigating the legality of the Lib Dem calls.

    As for your claim that “50% of the population don’t mind it at all”, as I understand it the claim is actually that 50% of the recipients don’t immediately slam the phone down. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t loathe unsolicited recorded phone messages.

    And as for the claim that this is genuine market research, Rennard must think we were all born yesterday. You don’t need a sample of a quarter of a million for genuine market research. You don’t need a hundredth of that. If what Rennard says is true, he’s simply throwing the party’s money down the drain.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 19th Sep '08 - 12:37pm

    Jo Christie-Smith

    Then let me ask you a question. Can you really put your hand on your heart and say you believe this is purely market research, and not an attempt to influence people’s voting intentions?

  • Grammar Police 19th Sep '08 - 1:04pm

    Geoffrey’s right here – the party will be getting a lot of feedback on this, from media coverage, people who responded, the ICO, members. They’ll be able to come to a decision on whether it is worth it.

    True enough I’m not a fan of recorded messages – and members at our liberal drinks last night were fairly agreed it was a bad idea. But hell, better they tried it now than in the middle of an election campaign.

  • Alix Mortimer 19th Sep '08 - 1:05pm

    “But hell, better they tried it now than in the middle of an election campaign.”

    That much at least is true!

  • Tony Greaves 19th Sep '08 - 2:17pm

    Grauniad letters page today sums it up really. (This and everything else). There is a real risk that the Liberal Democrats are going off the rails unless urgent acvtion is taken.

    Tony Greaves

  • Tony, it is A Good Thing that our party is going ‘off the rails’ in the sense you mean.

    For more than the whole of my lifetime we have been railroaded into accepting we’ll never make it into government and must be satisfied with any contributions we can make.

    I want to stop that particular train of thought – this is just one more way in which we show that it is within our own power to upset the conventional orthodoxy of predetermination.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 19th Sep '08 - 3:30pm

    Tony Greaves:
    “There is a real risk that the Liberal Democrats are going off the rails unless urgent acvtion is taken.”

    But who is in a position to take action, apart from the people who are driving the party off the rails?

    As far as I can see, those who are unhappy with the way things are going (or rather have gone) have three options:
    (1) Swallow hard and carry on as usual,
    (2) Become inactive members and hope things will change after the next election and
    (3) Leave the party.

  • Thomas Hemsley 19th Sep '08 - 3:52pm

    Interesting. I’ve spoken to someone who did recieve a call, my form tutor, and she said that while she put the phone down, she thought later she should have carried on listening. She was even more intrigued when I told her you could interact. 😛

  • Nigel Quinton 19th Sep '08 - 4:48pm

    I think the key point about this is how ridiculous it was to publicly trail that the party were doing this. What were our campaigns team thinking of?

    My own reaction to the idea of an automated call would be more in line with Thomas’ form tutor – initial irritation, but a degree of curiosity. Still, I do wonder if its the best way to spend our meagre resources.

  • Thomas Hemsley 19th Sep '08 - 4:58pm

    I’m not sure she was annoyed, necessarily.

    I do agree on the trailing thing, though – why?

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 19th Sep '08 - 5:07pm

    Jo Christie-Smith:
    “Oh, and CCF, I think there is a value in understanding what is important to people and what they like. This information has a intrinsic value. There may or may not be positive by-products as a result but that shouldn’t deter us from undertaking the polling in the first place.”

    That’s a rather waffly way of avoiding answering the question.

    As I said above, everyone knows this wasn’t really a market research exercise (as Rennard claims it was) because – apart from any other considerations – surveying a hundredth as many people would have been perfectly adequate for market research.

    As with other issues, it’s the blatant dishonesty of the party’s position that offends me.

  • CCF, criticisng Rennard for ‘blatant dishonesty’, as you call it, is just another way of excusing yourself from doing anything of similar import.

    Your negativism begins to grate very quickly.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 19th Sep '08 - 5:31pm


    I’m not a Tory – I’ve been a member of the Lib Dems for more than 20 years. That’s why I’m unhappy at the dishonesty.

    If it doesn’t bother you and others here, there’s obviously nothing I can do about that. But I do think it’s a bit sad, and I don’t think the electorate is quite as gullible as some people are assuming.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 19th Sep '08 - 5:33pm

    “CCF, criticisng Rennard for ‘blatant dishonesty’, as you call it …”

    Well, what do you call it when someone says something that’s not true, and everyone knows it’s not true?

  • CCF, can I recommend you research the diifference between fact and truth – any of the Indiana Jones films will provide a diverting essay on the subject.

    The fact of this matter is that Rennard was promoting a politically-motivated perspective and therefore what he said would be more accurately described as a ‘half-truth’. It always stirs up controversy to make such a statement, but you shouldn’t be fooled into hasty condemnation by provocation as anyone who reacts exposes their partiality and will provoke a counterreaction. It’s an old tactic because it’s an effective tactic.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 19th Sep '08 - 6:19pm


    Well, at least – apparently – we agree that what Rennard said wasn’t true. Even if it was terribly “negative” of me to mention that obvious fact.

  • No CCF, that’s not what I said, but I’m happy if you agree with it anyway.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 19th Sep '08 - 6:57pm


    OK, clearly you’re as eager to avoid answering the question as Jo Christie-Smith, though I think your reference to a “half-truth” is actually clear enough

    I’d be interested to hear whether anyone at is willing to say “I believe what Rennard said was true.”

  • Andrew Wimble 19th Sep '08 - 7:03pm

    Personally I find cold calling anoying, even if it is something I am interested in and feel any kind of mass calling will do far more harm than good.

  • Paul Griffiths 19th Sep '08 - 8:38pm

    I believe what Rennard said was true.

    I know nothing about opinion polling, so it comes down to whether I find CCF or Chris Rennard more trustworthy, and I have no idea who CCF is.

  • David Morton 20th Sep '08 - 3:28am

    When I heard about this I was very concernd.

    1. Even if it works it will start an arms race. We know the other two big parties are better funded than we are. Why in the name of God would we want to introduce something into British politics which increases the power of money over grass roots activism?

    2. I have never met anyone who isn’t annoyed by robbo calling and just puts the phone down.

    3. Its “McCampaigning”. Synthetic,artificial,sterile and inauthentic. It simply sticks in my liberal throat.

    I have thought more than twice about public criticism but I feel very strongly about this.

  • David Hickson 21st Sep '08 - 1:33am

    Two points to make after I telephoned the Information Commissioner’s Office on Wednesday morning to try to get it to save the party from itself.

    The ICO has reviewed the script and found that it does represent “marketing”. It is now waiting for evidence of anyone who received a call without having given prior consent.

    Action at this stage would not include any penalty, just a warning to the party (and thereby to others) that this is not allowed.

    My concern is for the understanding of the regulatory position that this leaves in the public domain. The “its a survey” excuse is used by many cold callers with something to sell. In the public interest we need it to be known that abuses will be followed up if reported and appropriate action taken.

    If the party “gets away with” this it will have set back the cause of regulating telephone marketing to the disadvantage of those who conduct it properly and recipients of calls from those who do not.

    I am grateful to Lib Dem MPs who helped me in my campaign against Silent Calls. It is most disappointing to find that the party has moved away from me on this issue, as well as others.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 24th Sep '08 - 4:59pm

    A report in the Guardian confirms that the Information Commissioner’s office have decided that the calls were for marketing purposes, and that the party is seeking an urgent meeting with the commissioner’s staff to avoid being formally censured.

  • Hywel Morgan 26th Sep '08 - 11:04am

    Jo – I don’t particularly have any strong views on the benefits of this technique outside it’s legality and consistency with our previous position.

    As I said – I’ve used similar techniques before when they were legal though I wasn’t convinced they achieved very much.

    Yes it is used in the US (though no-where near as modern as has been portrayed) however there you can use it to (1) push-poll and (2) Identify individuals for follow up as potential supporters and activists. It’s pretty clear neither of those is allowed here.

    The arguments about TPS are two-fold. Firstly did we call TPS numbers? That’s not explict but no-one has come out to say that we didn’t and calling TPS numbers would be consistent with our position that this was market research.

    But secondly in our pro-TPS campaign we set a lot of store by respect for people’s privacy and the spirit of the legislation. Indeed Martin Tod specifically criticised just this technique. That’s the position we now seem to have turned our back on.

    As for evidence we weren’t breaking the law – I think developments since justify my concerns.

  • Hywel Morgan 27th Sep '08 - 2:49pm

    “Reference to the TPS is a “red herring”.”

    An automated call which is a marketing call can only be made to a non-TPS number. Your right that if I consent to an automated call that would override TPS registration.

    It’s relevant therefore if marketing automated calls are made to TPS registered numbers.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 27th Sep '08 - 2:56pm

    “An automated call which is a marketing call can only be made to a non-TPS number.”

    Isn’t it the case that automated marketing calls are not allowed to any number without prior consent?

  • Hywel Morgan 27th Sep '08 - 3:09pm

    Yes – sorry it wasn’t very clear as I was trying to link up the relevance of TPS to automated calls.

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