While the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr painstakingly exposed the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the Aggregate IQ connection, and the involvement of the various Leave campaigns during the 2016 EU referendum, there was, building up in opposition to her research, a push-back emanating mainly from the perpetually thirsty Paul Staines and his rabble at the Guido Fawkes blog. Why this should be is now coming clear.
She's still sleuthing, folks
Back in 2009, and continuing right through to 2011 when the late and not lamented Screws was finally put out of its misery by the Murdoch mafiosi, The Great Guido railed against the phone hacking revelations, pretending it wasn’t happening and hoping it would all go away. But that was based on little more than Staines’ rank ignorance. His opposition to phone hacking Mark 2 is based, it seems, on his involvement.
We already knew that Staines, along with Matthew Elliott, Jag Singh and Andrew Whitehurst, had back in 2013 founded WESS Digital, which promised “Digital politics reinvented”. At the heart of the WESS operation was a database called METIS. This contained “Data on the supporters of issues based campaigns”. And there was more.
METIS was also having “aggregated census records, social media profile data and online political advertising response data” fed into it. The Spectator talked of “The mighty Metis machine that could save Cameron’s bacon in 2015”. But little more was heard of WESS, although the Tories’ digital operation in 2015 remains mainly unexplored, a subject to which I’ll return later in the post. Because it requires further investigation.
He may be involved ...
We also know that CA is no more, but that a spin-off called Emerdata has since become established. But then yesterday, Ms Cadwalladr made a significant discovery. “Julian Wheatland, ex-Cambridge Analytica chairman, resigned today from Emerdata, the CA spin-off. And look what else is new: company's registered address now Griffin Law. Firm owned by scandal-prone Brexiteer & founder of Thatcher Centre, Donal Blaney”.
Donal Blaney. Now there’s a name to conjure with. Former head man at the now-moribund Young Britons’ Foundation. Giver of all those Golden Dolphin Awards, including one (later rescinded) to Mark Clarke of Tory Bullying infamy. Advocate of dismantling the NHS. And as Ms Cadwalladr rightly notes, pal of a whole host of villainy, including Raheem “call me Ray” Kassam, and the serially litigious Matthew Richardson.
... and he's almost certainly involved. Somewhere
But one name has been missed out, and as the photo confirms, that name, seen deep in conversation with Blaney, is Paul Staines. So what Ms Cadwalladr has unearthed is the link which brings the story arc back round to the source of all that knocking copy. It was the Fawkes blog that went after her, and after Staines’ long serving teaboy Alex “Billy Liar” Wickham departed for BuzzFeed News, they went after her too.
And now that all those links are in place, along with the knowledge of what CA got up to in their various endeavours, we might usefully consider the purposes that the METIS database may have served. So much is still unexplained about the 2015 General Election and how certain groups of voters were influenced. One avenue of influence we know well, another we have some knowledge, and a third is as yet a blank canvas.
What we know well is the Road Trip 2015 campaign, and the involvement of Mark Clarke. This was a straightforward enhancement of canvassing capability in a number of selected, and potentially marginal, constituencies. But remember also the fiasco of the Eastleigh by-election campaign of 2013? The local Tories had lost track of where their supporters lived, so when Bozza visited, they couldn’t find him some Tory voters to chat to.
The idea that the Eastleigh shambles was a one-off does not stand serious analysis. And somehow, between 2013 and 2015, matters were turned around sufficiently well for Mark Clarke’s Road Trippers to be deployed effectively. So where did the Tories get their potential swing voter information in the intervening two years?
While that one is being considered further, we come to the second avenue of influence, which is the targeting of Lib Dem voters, mainly across the South West of England. There was some targeting of Labour seats, but the big prize was to go after the Tories’ then Coalition partners. Here, Mark Wallace of Conservative Home gives us a hint of how this was done, without revealing where the data came from.
“The importance of getting the research right cannot be overstated, either in terms of the eventual election result, or the subsequent media confusion. The majority would be won by campaigns targeted directly at a relatively small number of groups, each composed of a relatively small number of people in a relatively small number of seats”. Do go on.
Look who's conferring ... Donal Blaney and Paul Staines
“The Conservative approach was, in effect, a rather secret war, carried out below the radar of the watching national media, which had no means of assessing the quality of the information gathered in the databases, or all the ways in which it was duly exploited”. He also acknowledges the wake-up call that was the Eastleigh campaign.
So that’s two avenues of influence with Road Trip 2015 and the under-the-radar targeting of often Lib Dem voters, both of which would have needed significant amounts of data on the targeted electorate. But what of the third? That is the influencing of Labour voters, and that, I would suggest, was worked in two different ways.
One, the more obvious approach, was to get some voters to vote for another party. If not the Tories, then moving them to the Lib Dems or Greens would blunt Labour majorities, or even shift seats to The Blue Team. Two was to somehow persuade Labour voters not to bother turning out, or what is more correctly called Voter Suppression.
And there has to be a spiv in the mix
Now, this blog is not going to make accusations, but consider this: in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, every opinion pollster somehow managed to underestimate the Tory vote, and overestimate that for Labour. Moreover, pollsters reported that if there was any last minute movement they could detect, it was towards Labour, not the Tories.
So how does that translate into a Tory majority, other than a combination of encouragement to switch away from Labour, and a campaign of voter suppression? From all the abuse Carole Cadwalladr has been getting, it’s clear that some of those vested interests would rather she not delve too deeply. But now we can see the missing link in the chain, she may know where to look. And she isn’t about to give up and go away.
It’s becoming clear that what was done during the referendum campaign was not the first outing for all those voter databases. This story has some way yet to run.
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