The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has found that part of the Conservative Party’s 2017 general election campaign was “unlawful”. But rather than taking action against the Conservatives, the watchdog has let them off with a warning.
During the 2017 general election campaign, Channel 4 News ran an undercover investigation into a South Wales call centre, Blue Telecoms, after The Canary raised questions about its activities during the 2015 general election. Channel 4 found that the call centre, contracted by the Conservative Party, called thousands of voters in marginal seats across the UK. It alleged that callers claimed to “be from an ‘independent market research company’ which does not apparently exist”. And it found that some of the calls contained apparently positive messages about Theresa May and negative messages about Jeremy Corbyn.
Political parties can conduct market research. But framing questions to gain political support constitutes direct marketing. And after investigating Channel 4‘s evidence, the ICO (which regulates electronic marketing) has ruled that:
two small sections of the written scripts used by those making the calls crossed the line from legitimate market research to unlawful direct marketing.
Slap on the wrist
An ICO spokesperson emphasised to The Canary that the ICO does not regulate election law; its remit was to look at whether the calling campaign was market research or direct marketing. And it stopped short of taking regulatory action because it found that “the overall campaign was genuine market research”. The ICO explains:
The two sections we had concerns about were not enough to trigger formal enforcement action when considered along with the campaign as a whole. In addition, the results of the survey were not saved against any individual so they could not be targeted for future marketing.
Instead, the ICO “warned the Conservative Party to get it right next time”. It is a decision which many have questioned:
The Tories used manipulative secret and illegal methods in last election but are only "warned". British electoral law is a farce https://t.co/h9VQDO2pXd
— Paul Mason (@paulmasonnews) October 24, 2017
— Joel Benjamin (@Gian_TCatt) October 23, 2017
If it was "unlawful" why is ICO letting the Tories off with a wrist slap? ICO seems an even worse regulator than the FCA https://t.co/w2ph2Jjfud
— Ian Fraser (@Ian_Fraser) October 23, 2017
But it’s not over
But critics of the decision may have reason to hope that further action may be taken. Channel 4 also alleged that the call centre conducted “paid canvassing on behalf of Conservative election candidates – banned under election law”.
Dogged by controversy
This is, of course, not the first time the Conservatives have been slapped on the wrist over their election campaigning. In March, the Electoral Commission fined the party £70,000 for multiple breaches in reporting campaign spending. But Britain regulates political parties and election campaigns for one very good reason: to keep elections free and fair. And it’s no wonder voters are getting tired of seeing the ruling party get away with slaps on the wrist.
The Canary contacted the Conservative Party for comment, but received no response.
– If you’ve worked for Blue Telecoms, please get in touch with the author of this article. We will protect your identity.
– Follow Channel 4 News on Twitter.
Featured image via David Mirzoeff
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