This piece is part of a collaboration between openDemocracy and the Bristol Cable.
Voters in the Labour-held marginal seat of Bristol North West have been targeted by print leaflets employing misinformation and negative campaigning, as well as Facebook ads by political parties and more opaque groups.
With the help of members and readers, the Cable has collected print leaflets from all political parties, including ones posing as local newspapers, magazines and bill letters, while others have used data misleadingly.
Labour’s Darren Jones won the seat Conservative Charlotte Leslie in 2017, but the strongly pro-Remain MP will be reliant on the constituency’s 61% of Remain voters to see off challenges from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to keep his seat
The parties have been vying for the support of undecided voters – people like Alex who lives in Horfield. He doesn’t use Facebook much anymore because he got fed up with misleading information. But because he was unsure how to vote, he sought out advice from another source of information – social media website Reddit.
"I got through two leaflets this morning each with coloured graphs on the back showing who can win and who can't. The Lib Dem one said they were in second place and the Labour one said the Lib Dems were nowhere near and can't win. It's no help, because you know the information is handpicked to look better, you don't get any unbiased information.”
"I don't find them useful. You don't know what to trust, so I go and read the manifestos to find out what they intend to do rather than what's not been done in the past and sob stories about cuts."
Alex might have voted Conservative, but ruled them out after not hearing anything from their candidate Mark Weston – an interesting sign of the power canvassing and leafleting can have in reaching floating voters. "I was turned off by the fact they couldn't even be bothered to put a leaflet through the door," he said.
In contrast with the focus on presidential-style personality politics, Alex wants to vote for issues not leaders: “I might not like Corbyn but they are the party that most align with what I believe. My wife is pregnant and we've been going through the NHS system, so I really value that and it's made a big change in my mind about underfunding and cuts to the NHS. We're so lucky to have healthcare like that."
The Lib Dem leaflet Alex showed us is typical of their local campaign, which has focused on showing they have a genuine chance of winning the seat. As recently as last week, their leaflets were still using projections based on national polling data from pro-Remain campaigners Better for Britain from September and October that puts them in second place. Yet the same tactical voting site backing Labour in Bristol North West, and the results being updated two weeks ago to put the Lib Dems in third.
This comes after the party was accused of misleading voters by presenting projections from an obscure website, which put them in second place, as local polling. However, just yesterday, Darren Jones wrongly presented the Best for Britain projections as ‘polling of Bristol North West’ on social media.
Confusingly, the Lib Dems have also put out numerous leaflets in Bristol North West saying the Conservatives can’t win, even though they have won the seat or come second in every election since the seat was founded in 1950.
One of these was a much-criticised letter by polling expert Mike Smithson indirectly calling on people to vote Lib Dem as the only option to defeat Labour. The catch is that the letter doesn’t mention that Smithson is a former Lib Dem councillor who twice ran to be an MP, and doesn’t cite any scientific methodology.
The Lib Dems have also targeted voters in Bristol North West with a letter from former Labour MP Chuka Umunna, despite Darren Jones having worked closely with him before he left the party. An angry Jones said the letter had “gone too far”.
‘I'm sure it will terrify people’
Amy Boyd is a Labour voter in Lockleaze who has been bombarded by dozens of leaflets from the Lib Dems and Conservatives. She contacted the Cable about one from the Conservatives claiming that Corbyn becoming Prime Minister would cost each taxpayer £2,400 a year.
“When that Conservative 'bill' leaflet arrived with those vast sums in black and white it immediately triggered money anxiety and I had to remind myself that I know Labour's plans are costed and have the backing of economists,” she told the Cable.
“With that in mind, I'm sure it will terrify people who rely on election leaflets to help them make a choice. I remember last election that a lot of people thought Labour would take their gardens away.” (She is referring to coverage of Labour’s Land Value Tax – an alternative to current council tax.)
“The disinformation is likely [to] influence people who need a Labour government most, which makes me weep,” she added.
The claim on the leaflet, which is part of the Tories’ wider Cost of Corbyn campaign, has been debunked by trusted fact checking service Full Fact. They said: “This figure is largely meaningless as the calculations and assumptions behind it have a number of flaws.” However, with false information, the corrections rarely cut through as much as the original claim.
The Conservatives have distributed propaganda designed to look like a local newspaper – a practice condemned by the chief of News UK, who said the tactic “harms and undermines our democratic society”. A voter who received the ‘Bristol North West Future’ described the hidden party branding as “disgusting tactics”.
The Tories have also sent out a ‘You and Your Family’ leaflet styled like a lifestyle magazine, and another that looks like it came from the NHS. It’s unclear what impact this kind of campaigning has, but on the NHS leaflet, Full Fact’s chief executive Will Moy said: “Elections are won by small margins, and deceptive tactics rob people of the chance to make informed choices about who to vote for.”
The advert battle on social media
But beyond the ground war of canvassing and leaflets, this election is being fought out on social media. Back in September the Conservatives were criticised for changing the headline of a BBC article on school funding in a Facebook ad. More recently, analysis by fact checkers First Draft found in just four days last week, the Conservatives paid for almost 6,000 Facebook ads featuring misleading claims. This has been made easier by Facebook’s decision to exempt politicians from its third-party fact checking system.
Each of the local candidates have spent roughly a few hundred pounds on Facebook ads, but the Conservatives and Lib Dems have been targeting Bristol North West using money from the parties’ national war chest.
For example, the Lib Dems have paid for ads attacking Corbyn for anti-Semitism and the Conservatives have spent up to £1,500 on 17 separate ads warning voters of a coalition of chaos under Labour, which have been seen up to 70,000 times. There are also likely to be other ads that don’t specifically mention BNW but are targeted at voters in the marginal seat.
Labour’s Darren Jones told the Cable that Bristol North West was among the top targets in terms of the Conservative spending on Facebook ads, while he has received no funding from the national Labour Party. Nationally, Labour (£178,379) and the Lib Dems (£175,152) have spent more than double the amount by the Tories (£81,897) in the week up to 5 December.
The Cable also identified a number of anti-Tory ads from organisations other than the political parties specifically targeting BNW. Pro-Labour messages came from more than 50 ads from anti-Brexit website Make It Stop, which has spent £2,214 nationally, and international campaigning organisation Avaaz UK, which has spent £400-600 on ads in Bristol North West – out of £12,153 nationally. There were also nine individual ads targeting the constituency from pro-Remain tactical voting site Vote For a Final Say, which has has spent £6,396 in just over two weeks.
Voters have also been targeted by murkier ads from opaque organisations. Ruth McConnell who lives in Horfield was targeted by this ad by Capitalist Worker, and said in response: “It wouldn't convince me to change my vote, but it could make undecided voters confused if they hadn't already decided who to vote for.”
The Capitalist Worker page has so far spent £15,293 during the campaign, but didn’t have any details about who was behind the page. However, it has now been revealed the page was set up Max Young, the deputy editor of economically right-wing website 1828. Facebook is now investigating the page, which may have breached transparency rules.
Darren Jones had also been contacted about ads from the Capitalist Worker. He said: "There's been some weird shit going on. A lot has been disinformation, I don't know where it's coming from.”
He said he’d been getting questions about Labour legalising abortion all the way up to full term. “I was like 'what the hell?' We're not doing that but for some reason there were all these Facebook ads going out saying that's what we're doing. That's a moral, theological and very sensitive issue, and of course we wouldn't allow that, but somebody out there is using it as a political football to anger voters. That's completely unacceptable.”
Last week, the Cable spoke to a voter up the road in Filton and Bradley Stoke who had seen an ad about this false claim on Facebook, and as a result said they were not going to vote for Labour.
"We've really got to find a way of how to fix this stuff,” Jones continued. “You've got to find a way without impinging on freedom of speech and civil liberties and in a way that technologically works."
Jones himself has received some criticism locally about barely mentioning Labour in his campaign materials. Vinny Cannon, who is a Labour member from Westbury-On-Trym, noticed while delivering Labour leaflets that they had “almost no logos or mentions of the Labour Party”. He told the Cable he was “very frustrated” at this tactic.
The Cable put this to Jones, who said: "To win Bristol North West, you need a coalition of voters, we don't have a big enough core Labour vote to win.
“That's why we focused on my record as the local MP and the service we've delivered and the testimonies from residents. This is about who you want in parliament. If I just put out national-spend leaflets, we wouldn't win."