Paul Tyler writes…Was the Brexit poll compromised?

That is the question the Conservative Chair of the investigating Commons Select Committee asked last weekend.  Hitherto, his Ministerial colleagues have seemed determined to turn a blind eye to all the recent revelations of possible illegality by Leave campaigners.

Will they be more forthcoming this afternoon ?     My Question to be discussed in the Lords reads as follows:

“Lord Tyler to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are satisfied that current electoral law adequately prevents the misuse of personal data in United Kingdom elections and referendum campaigns”

The HOUSE magazine has published some background for this mini debate:

The revelations come thick and fast.   Daily – sometimes it seems like hourly – we learn that our personal data may have been misused in ever more controversial ways.  In particular, ingenious development of Facebook material appears to have played a key role in targeting both positive messages and contrived attacks in the Trump election campaign AND to secure the Brexit result of our own 2016 EU Referendum.

So far Ministers have hidden behind a reassuring report from the Electoral Commission about the conduct of that referendum.  However, that was issued months ago, long before the detailed analysis from Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer began to gain traction, and the whistleblowers from Cambridge Analytica, AIQ and the Leave campaigns emerged to give their evidence.   Since the turn of the year the alleged network of illicit collaboration has caused the Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner and the House of Commons Culture Media & Sport Select Committee to open new investigations.  The latter, led by Conservative MP Damian Collins, is being especially pro-active, and their witness list in the next few days is itself an indication of the vital role Parliamentary Select Committees can now play.

Despite apparent BBC attempts to minimise the significance of all this increasing weight of evidence (presumably because other media have provided the investigative journalism) there are signs of growing public unease.   Have we as nation been conned, just like so many in the US ?    Has our personal data been “scraped” for this purpose ?   Are our very strict laws, which seek to protect our elections and referendum campaigns from being bought by billionaires and foreign governments, up to the job?

Carole Cadwalladr wrote recently “It’s not about party politics.  It’s not about Leave/Remain.  It’s about the future of our democracy in the digital age.”

Twice in recent weeks I have challenged Ministers in the Lords to respond to the serious nature of these allegations.  On the 28 March I asked Lord Young “do the Government not recognise that there are continuing public doubts about the integrity of the system, which he has just described as robust, and which then challenge the legitimacy of the whole Brexit processs.”   He replied “We will never know if the law was broken and whether it made any difference. My personal view is that it was unlikely, and there are better explanations as to why people voted as they did, rather than that they were targeted by an algorithm.”

Is the Government still so confident that no illegality will be established ?   And if it is – given the narrow outcome, with 16 people voting to Remain for every 17 voting to Leave – how does that affect the current stampede over the Brexit cliff ?  I think we should be told.

Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress last week provided no new answers to all these allegations about the impact of Facebook data misuse in the UK, but it certainly raised new and deeply disturbing questions.  If even he admits the very serious nature of these faults, how come Ministers are so complacent ?

So much for the questions.  What answers will we get ?   You can follow all these exchanges on Parliament TV or (later) in Lords Hansard.

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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11 Comments

  • Sean Hyland 18th Apr '18 - 7:56pm

    Already had to be clarifications by the Observer and questions about the whistleblowers. Possible but doubtful was compromised in the manner reported.
    Don’t forget that Facebook etc harvesting your data everyday to sell the information for all those targeted ads that you get.
    Don’t use any social media platform through choice.

  • OnceALibDem 18th Apr '18 - 8:49pm

    There are legitimate concerns about the lack of privacy around Facebook’s data gathering but worth bearing in mind the thoughts of Rob Blackie (on of the Lib Dems leading digital campaigners:
    “I’m dubious about Cambridge Analytica’s (CA) ability to actually swing elections. Why? Well:
    There is no strong evidence that their approach worked anywhere. The only reliable way to know how people are going to vote is to ask them, and there’s no evidence CA did this.
    Facebook Likes are a poor way to profile people.
    Modelling tends to go out of date over time, and so a 3-5 year old model isn’t very useful.
    Translating that model back into targeting on Facebook is also hard.”

  • If one looks at the entire process, it is justifiable to assert that the referendum and its result are not in the national interest. From the outset until today, the terminology of winning and losing dominates this constitutional, long-lasting, and profoundly impactful question. In an ideal world, the whole country would have won by adequately addressing and answering this question. But the opposite happened.

    The leave campaign, knowing that their cause has no rational basis, successfully employed emotion from the outset, and remain found no equally involving counter-strategy.

    Cabinet ministers breaking ranks and peddling outright lies was accompanied by a conscious campaign to discredit expertise and fact-based cost/benefit evaluations in general. This Tory civil war, viewed as a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity by leavers to achieve the impossible, helped by the “perfect” opposition leader and a partisan press, was fought without regard to any standards of truthfulness and decency. They knew, and remain did not anticipate, that their goal was achievable only if fiction and emotion prevailed over facts and economics.

    They succeeded, and caused lasting damage to the idea of research-based, measured policy-evaluation and -formulation. It this context, in which the CA-scandal must be evaluated: voters were on an emotional roller-coster, evidence-based thinking was discredited to a point of becoming backfiring; irrational, subconscious appeals fell on fertile grounds. Facebook provided the low-cost platform to disseminate, and CA helped in framing and targeting them.

    The “Brexit-poll” (correct term!) was most definitely compromised, not only by irregular campaign-spending and stealth-targeting, but by a a political class that intoxicated a complex policy-choice with pure emotion and provided no reliable facts or specific implementation steps.

  • Peter Hirst 19th Apr '18 - 1:58pm

    This question is part of a wider one of how the whole process was conducted and shows clearly the need for a codified, written constitution that details the processes involved in this and other matters.

  • Nigel Quinton 19th Apr '18 - 3:27pm

    I agree with Peter Hirst. But the practical implications of the CA efforts to influence the result are in my opinion less damning of the process than the increasingly clear evidence of spending rules being broken. Leave now seem to be resorting to the line that remain broke the same rules – even if that is true, surely the very fact that they are effectively conceding that the rules were broken (on either side) should in any country with an effective constitution mean that the result should be put aside?

  • Yes. There should be a public inquiry into Cameron spending Nine Million of Tax Payer’s Money on a propaganda leaflet which was in support of keeping us in the EU ..

  • Sean Hyland 19th Apr '18 - 8:50pm

    What clear evidence has been presented of spending rules being broken? If so does this also mean we should set aside all recent election results as i seem to recall spending limits being broken and finds given.

  • Sean Hyland 19th Apr '18 - 8:51pm

    Oops spellchecker meant fines given

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Apr '18 - 9:41pm

    Nigel Quinton 19th Apr ’18 – 3:27pm
    “surely the very fact that they are effectively conceding that the rules were broken (on either side) should in any country with an effective constitution mean that the result should be put aside?”

    Can you name a single country in which that would be the case? In fact, I suggest a country in which a result could be overturned so easily (and indeed, one in which spending limits are written into the constitution) would be one with an unworkable constitution.

  • When I went to cast my vote, I hesitated. What if the Treasury short term forecasts were correct? What if my vote could cause half a million people to lose their job? What if I was causing an immediate recession? How would I live with myself?

    In the end I decided to trust my professional judgement as a statistician and I voted Leave as I wished.

    As I had anticipated, the short term forecasts by the Treasury turned out to be hopelessly wrong but it took a lot of courage to vote on my convictions. How many other would-be Leave voters bottled out?

    This is the big scandal of the Brexit poll. Although the people concerned have quietly admitted they were wrong, they have not clearly explained what went wrong. They have not explained what steps they have taken to ensure that future forecasts are more accurate. They have not revised the long term forecasts for the economy in accordance with lessons learnt.

    There should be a Parliamentary enquiry to address this issue.

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