How On Earth Have Leave.EU Got Away With This?

British law forbids donations from foreign – or impermissible – donors, in order to maintain the integrity of the British Electoral system. So the idea that any foreign entity, company, or individual should be trying to influence the UK electoral process or political landscape should be cause for concern for anyone who cares about the direction of politics in this country.

There has been much discussion of the role of Cambridge Analytica in the EU referendum, how much they influenced and aided the Leave campaign and how they were able to do it. Yet despite this, there hasn’t been much public discussion of a harrowing fact – Cambridge Analytica are a US company, owned by US citizen, Robert Mercer.

They cannot legally provide services in the form of donations to a UK campaign or political party, yet they don’t appear on the Leave.EU campaign spending records. There is a plethora of evidence linking the Leave.EU campaign and Cambridge Analytica that suggests that they worked closely with each other, but post-referendum all collaboration, co-ordination, and consultation has been routinely denied.

Denial, Denial, Denial

Leave.EU and Cambridge Analytica claimed not to have worked with other in response to Observer reporting on the issue. Arron Banks said that they did speak to Cambridge Analytica about working with them “if we won the official designation – but we didn’t”.

Yet despite these denials, there is a wealth of evidence connecting Cambridge Analytica and Leave.EU. Perhaps most brazenly these claims contradict what Banks wrote in his own book, The Bad Boys of Brexit. For the entry dated 22 October 2015, Banks wrote: “We’ve hired Cambridge Analytica, an American company that uses ‘big data and advanced psychographics’ to influence people.”

Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s communications director, revealed that Farage was a close friend of both Bannon and Mercer and that the Leave campaign was a “petri dish” for the Trump campaign. “We shared a lot of information because what they were trying to do and what we were trying to do had massive parallels.”

Wigmore said that Mercer had been “happy to help” and Cambridge Analytica had given its services to the campaign for free. It was the general secretary of Ukip, a British lawyer called Matthew Richardson, who arranged Leave.EU’s introduction to Cambridge Analytica, Wigmore said. “We had a guy called Matthew Richardson who’d known Nigel for a long time and he’s always looked after the Mercers. The Mercers had said that here’s this company that we think might be useful.”

These comments were the beginning of two separate investigations; one by the Information Commissioner’s Office about possible illegal use of data and another by the Electoral Commission.

An ICO spokeswoman said: “We have concerns about Cambridge Analytica’s reported use of personal data and we are in contact with the organisation.

“We are also conducting a wider assessment of the data protection risks arising from the use of data analytics, including for political purposes, and will be contacting a range of organisations.

“We intend to publicise our findings later this year.”

At the launch event where Gunster talked about data, Banks was videoed sitting next to a senior executive of Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser. The Leave.EU Facebook pages describe her as its director of programme development. At the event, she talked to the British press about the “large-scale research” that would identify what people were really interested in and how this would “help inform our policy and our campaigns”.

A now deleted post on Leave.EU’s website (but available via archive), entitled The Science Behind Our Strategy, described how Leave.EU was working with Cambridge Analytica. It reads

“Cambridge Analytica are world leaders in target voter messaging. They will be helping us map the British electorate and what they believe in, enabling us to better engage with voters.  Most elections are fought using demographic and socio-economic data. Cambridge Analytica’s psychographic methodology however is on another level of sophistication… While Cambridge Analytica will be helping with the data, Goddard Gunster, who have fought some of the most contentious referendum campaigns all over the world (with a success rate of over 90%) will be helping us turn that data into a comprehensive strategy… This campaign is about the message, not the personality.”

When speaking to Bloomberg about their work, Kaiser commented that the first stage of her work with Leave.EU involved interviewing “close to half a million Britons”. Typical polling samples conducted by firms such as YouGov are of about 1,200 people. This sort of research would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, say experts – though nothing has been declared or accounted for by any campaign.

In an interview in February 2016, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix, told Campaign magazine: “Recently, Cambridge Analytica has teamed up with Leave.EU – the UK’s largest group advocating for a British exit (or ‘Brexit’) from the European Union – to help them better understand and communicate with UK voters. We have already helped supercharge Leave.EU’s social media campaign by ensuring the right messages are getting to the right voters online and the campaign’s Facebook page is growing in support to the tune of about 3,000 people per day.”

On 2 February 2016, Banks tweeted: “Our campaign is being run by Gerry Gunster (won 24 referendum in the USA and Cambridge analytica experts in SM”. (This post has since been deleted, though screenshots exist.)

In March 2016, Britany Kaiser gave more details: “Well, actually right now we are working on the Brexit campaign so we are working with all three of the main parties. […] It’s a very exciting campaign because it has forced the British government to run their third ever national referendum.”

In January 2017, Banks responded to a tweet about Cambridge Analytica, with: “Interesting, since we deployed this technology in leave.eu we got unprecedented levels of engagement. 1 video 13m views. AI won it for leave.”

When questioned on these links by the Observer, a Cambridge Analytica spokesman said: “Cambridge Analytica did no paid or unpaid work for Leave.EU.”

They denied that neither it nor SCL Elections had had any link with AggregateIQ (contractual or otherwise) for the past twelve months or that they were involved in AggregateIQ’s work with the Vote Leave campaign.

AggregateIQ Links

In March of this year, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, removed a listing for SCL Canada from its site. The phone number was that of Zack Massingham, the director of AggregateIQ. When questioned about it, a spokesman for SCL said it was an outdated listing of a former contractor who had done no work for Vote Leave.

Almost all of AIQ’s contracts came from either Cambridge Analytica or Robert Mercer – they wouldn’t have been able to exist without their work.

The Observer revealed that billionaire hedge-fund owner and one of the funders of the Trump Presidential campaign, Robert Mercer, was a key figure in Brexit. Andy Wigmore of Leave.EU commented that Mercer is a personal friend of Nigel Farage and that it was he who connected Leave.EU and Cambridge Analytica. He said: “They were happy to help. Because Nigel is a good friend of the Mercers. And Mercer introduced them to us.”

AggregateIQ in Canada and Cambridge Analytica had no public ties back in 2016. But an intellectual property licence shown to the Observer uncovered a binding “exclusive” “worldwide” agreement “in perpetuity” for all of AggregateIQ’s intellectual property to be used by SCL Elections.

At the time of the referendum, AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica were working together, being paid by Mercer-funded organisations to work on Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign in America. In one article Carole Cadwalladr, alleged that several anonymous sources revealed the two companies, working for Vote Leave and Leave.EU, shared the same database.

There is no concrete evidence so far that this was the case. However, AggregateIQ had a non-compete clause. A non-compete clause is where a subsidiary company agrees not to enter the same profession or marketplace in an attempt to undercut the larger firm. Leave.EU announced in November 2015 it was going to be working with Cambridge Analytica so AggregateIQ would have needed explicit permission to work with Vote Leave so as to avoid any lawsuits.

Given the level of public tension between the two campaign groups, it is odd that Leave.EU would have been happy with AggregateIQ helping their competitors. Though they may just have been happy to have any further support for the Brexit cause (or even have been unaware).

When the Electoral Commission wrote to AggregateIQ to ask about their links to Cambridge Analytica, they responded saying that it had signed a non-disclosure agreement that was outside British jurisdiction – or as Vote Leave described it, “a clean bill of health”.

The Electoral Commission were also looking into the “help” that Gerry Gunster gave the campaign. On the Facebook post following their launch event, they listed Gunster as their referendum strategy expert. Leave.EU failed to declare it in their spending returns and if donated, it would also be impermissible.

Electoral Commission Findings

Leave.EU were fined £70,000 by the Electoral Commission for spending violations during the referendum campaign. An investigation by the Electoral Commission found that they overspent by at least £77,380 – 10 per cent over the limit for non-party registered groups – but that the actual figure may have been “considerably higher” due to the “incomplete and inaccurate” information about spending that the group provided.

Bob Posner, the commission’s director of political finance and regulation and legal counsel, described the breaches as “serious offences” suggested that the fine would have been bigger but for a cap on the amount the commission can levy.

Perhap the most shocking part here is that the investigation found no evidence that Cambridge Analytica had made donations or provided any services aside from some “initial scoping work”.

Aaron Banks dismissed the findings altogether,

“We view the Electoral Commission announcement as a politically motivated attack on Brexit and the 17.4m people who defied the establishment to vote for an independent Britain… The EC went big game fishing and found a few ‘aged’ dead sardines on the beach. So much for the big conspiracy!”

It is utterly astounding that Leave.EU and Cambridge Analytica seem to have got away with this, at least for now. They managed to subvert the rules governing election spending and foreign intervention/influence, with simple denials despite the mountain of contrary evidence. Whether they successfully swung the election because of this is a wholly different issue, but what they have done is apparently lie and cheat the electoral laws of Britain without so much as a slap on the wrist.There is nothing patriotic about allowing a foreign billionaire to hijack nationalistic political movements in order to disrupt Britain’s position in the world.

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