BREAKING: Whistleblowers come forward with explosive allegations about the EU Referendum

Bex Sumner

The Canary has seen evidence that suggests a telephone polling company has been conducting ‘push polling’ during the EU referendum campaign. With the referendum vote due to take place in less than 48 hours, the evidence raises serious questions about the tactics campaigners may have deployed to interfere in a democratic referendum.

Return Marketing is a London-based marketing and research agency with extensive links to the Conservative party. In May, The Canary published a whistleblower’s allegations that the company used telephone polling to ask ‘misleading’ questions of thousands of voters in key marginal seats during the 2015 general election campaign. The company, said the whistleblower, was covertly funded by the Conservative party to carry out that work.

Now more whistleblowers have stepped forward to make a host of new, explosive allegations to The Canary. This is the first in a series of articles about those revelations, which we will be publishing over the coming days and weeks.

Return Marketing is currently conducting polling on the EU referendum, which is due to go to the vote on 23 June – less than 48 hours’ time.

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The Canary has seen a script used by the company’s calling agents, and it raises serious questions about the integrity of that polling. After gathering demographic data from voters and asking about their voting intentions, the researchers ask the question: “The EU costs Britain £350 million per week, how important is the cost of the EU?”:

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 18.03.16

The £350 million claim has been widely debunked as a eurosceptic myth. So why is it being included as a fact in Return Marketing’s polling?

If voters are undecided, the script goes on to emphasise the cost of the EU:

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 17.28.30

Market research, including asking about voting intentions and message testing, is a perfectly legitimate activity during political campaigns. But push polling – polling designed to influence voters while masquerading as political research – is a different story.

Andrew Hawkins, managing director of respected polling company ComRes, believes the questions asked in Return Marketing’s script may fall on the wrong side of that line:

Where I think we stray from the straight and narrow is where claims are made which clearly are contested claims around Britain’s contribution to the EU and presented as fact.

That would in my view doubtless fall foul of the Market Research Society’s own code of conduct and it would suggest that there is as much of an attempt to persuade the respondent with those questions as there is an attempt to find out what the respondent actually believes.

We know from the whistleblowers, the call scripts we’ve seen, and from social media posts from staff (staff The Canary has seen going into the building) that Return Marketing is currently engaged in EU referendum polling.

https://twitter.com/RoseSpiderLize/status/741229002405388289

What is still unclear is exactly who is funding the polling.

The script opens with the claim that Return Marketing is an independent company:

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 18.13.41

It instructs call centre agents to say they don’t know who the end client is:

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 17.26.40

It also instructs them to deny any affiliations with any political party:

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 17.27.00

Yet, as The Canary has previously documented, Return Marketing has extensive links to the Conservative party. Its two founders, Jonathan Hazzlewood and Miles Bennington, both previously worked for the party. The Conservatives hired Return Marketing during the Scottish independence referendum and the 2014 European parliamentary elections. It hired them again in the run-up to the 2015 general election, spending a total of £86,459 on “telephone projects” and other market research and canvassing work between March and May of 2015. And all the whistleblowers The Canary has spoken to say it is an “open secret” that the party extensively funds the company’s polling work, although they are instructed to deny it.

This leaves some serious questions to be answered:

Has the party – or a faction of the party – hired Return Marketing again for EU referendum campaigning? And if so, why is it push polling on behalf of the Leave campaign?

Return Marketing has not disclosed the identity of its client but says the client has not carried out any political campaigning work in relation to the EU referendum and has not carried out any “push polling”.

The Canary has also approached CCHQ, but at the time of publication it has not provided comment.

Featured image via greyweed/Flickr.

Get involved!

– If you worked for or have been called by a company conducting polling on the EU referendum and you have information you’d like to share, please get in touch.

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