Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

Pro-Labour Facebook pages swing into action in key marginal

Remain groups are helping Labour close the online funding war in Wales's capital

Edd Church
11 December 2019, 12.26pm
An advert from the pro-Labour group "Make it stop".

The Conservative party has outspent Labour in its Facebook campaign to win Cardiff North – a key marginal which sees Labour’s Anna McMorrin defending a slim 4,171 majority. However, like in other marginals, money from unofficial, non-party, sources has closed the Facebook advert spending gap – this time in favour of Labour.

Meanwhile, the Tories have angered some voters in the constituency by parachuting in a candidate and paying for a letter to be circulated from an ex-Labour MP encouraging people to vote against Corbyn.

On Facebook, one of the major digital campaign battlegrounds, McMorrin's own page has spent only £165 between 1 October and 9 November, and Llandaff North Labour has spent £214.

By contrast, the Facebook ad library states the Conservatives have spent £100-£199 on each of two “Make your vote count in Cardiff North” adverts. Alongside this, there have been a total of 15 adverts emphasising the importance of the seat to the Conservatives – one of which says the Tories only need ‘9 more seats’ to secure a majority and that ‘Cardiff North is one of them’.

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Screenshot 2019-12-11 at 12.23.27.png
A Tory advert seen in Cardiff North (not Clwyd South)

Finally, £500-599 was spent on a Boris Johnson ad. Curiously, for the latter advert – the image reads that it is pushing for a Tory vote in the similarly marginal “Clwyd South”, but the caption reads ‘Cardiff North’. The total amount spent is unclear – but what is certain is the Conservatives are pouring money into Cardiff North.

Labour have had some help, however, from anti-Brexit pages which appear to have sprung up only recently. ‘Make It Stop’, a limited company set up only on 18 November, has posted 33 adverts targeted at Cardiff North on Facebook. These have mostly centred around stopping Brexit, but others have also contained anti-austerity messaging.

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Similarly ‘Avaaz UK’ and ‘Vote for a Final say’ have paid for adverts promoting Labour as the only way to stop a Brexit led by Boris Johnson.

As a result, the Facebook spending gap between the two major parties themselves has shrunk: in Cardiff North, ‘Make It Stop’ has spent a maximum of around £200 (£2,214 nationally), ‘Avaaz UK’ between £200-299 (£12,153 nationally), and ‘Vote for a Final Say’ between £100-200 (£6,396 nationally). openDemocracy reporters have seen the same pro-Labour groups swing into action in other key marginals this week.

Plaid Cymru and the Brexit Party are the only other parties to advertise on Facebook. However, Plaid has thrown in less than £100 to do so. The Brexit party has spent only around £100-£300.

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As for the party’s campaigns themselves: In the shadow of national gaffes from both major party leaders – Cardiff North’s Labour and Conservative candidates have joined many other marginal seats in steering away from Corbyn or Johnson.

McMorrin has brought out the big names of her party in both her digital and street campaigning. Kier Starmer and David Lammy came to the seat to help with doorstepping – and appear in her Facebook adverts.

A staunch Remainer herself, McMorrin’s campaign significantly targets the majority remain vote in Cardiff North. Like Ali’s campaign, McMorrin has perhaps reflected the seat’s Remain tendencies, by backgrounding her party leader and stating how she is the “only Remain candidate” who could win there. Corbyn does not appear as a large part of her campaign whatsoever.

In the seat, both digital and physical campaigning has reflected the national convention of shady money and half-truths.

Parachutes and poison pens

The Brexit Party and the Tories have parachuted candidates in from England. Cardiff North is also one of the marginal Labour seats which has seen Tory money pay for a letter from an ex-Labour MP to be circulated, promoting what used to be his opposition party.

The choice of English candidates for this has been, predictably, poorly received online.

Conservative Candidate Mo Ali’s address is listed in London. The Brexit Party’s Chris Butler is listed as being in Kent. As a result, the two parties have faced criticism on social media.

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Similarly, @_JoaoMorais wrote: “Amazing that the "Welsh" Conservatives and Brexit Party have both put up candidates from 144 and 176 miles away respectively #GE2019”

Plaid Cymru member Jake Maddocks, 23, tweeted: “Most politicians from the whole spectrum do a lot of hard work for their local area, however, I’ve never heard of or seen Conservative candidate Mohamed Ali and only just realised he doesn’t even live in Wales!?”

Maddocks, from Rhiwbina, Cardiff North, told openDemocracy he will vote Labour due to the slim majority keeping the Conservatives out. “It saddens me when I see parties attacking each other.” He added. “I follow good policies and facts rather than who can put down others the most.”

“Brexit Party and Conservatives have shown complete arrogance with their choices,” he said. “I think members of parliaments should always live in the area or at least near it. The most important work is what the candidates do in the area, despite their duties in Westminster.”

In a nationally digital-centric election campaign, Maddocks also said he finds it “disappointing” that no politician has ever knocked on his door. “I do often see the hard work my local Labour AMs and MPs do on social media and from their newsletters,” he added.

In contrast to the Brexit and Tory parties, independent candidate Richard Jones has emphasised his ties to the local area – even subtly hinting at the others’ lack thereof: “Unlike some of the candidates, I live in Cardiff North,” he said.

For another voter in Cardiff North, Daren, the postal campaign has also been unsettling. He is one of many people in Labour constituencies who have received a letter, paid for by the Conservatives, from ex-Labour MP for Dudley North Ian Austin aimed at persuading people to not vote Labour.

It accuses Jeremy Corbyn of overseeing the party being “poisoned by racism, extremism and intolerance under his leadership” and of not being able to deliver Brexit. Austin’s letter says that from someone who is “decent, traditional Labour”, they should instead vote blue – going on to say: “I do not believe Jeremy Corbyn loves this country or that he and the people around him can be trusted with our defence and security. They always seem to back people who hate Britain.”

Daren thinks parties should not be allowed to run this type of campaign: “I just see this as a letter of hate that hasn’t even tried to tell me about what their party has to offer,” he said.

He added: “I’m pretty disgusted and angry to hear that the Conservatives have paid for this repulsive letter. I find it difficult to believe this is campaign material as it doesn’t offer any material on why I should vote Conservative. Only why they believe I shouldn’t vote Labour.

“I don’t understand why they have arranged for someone who doesn’t even represent my constituency to send this awful letter out [nor why they] think it would convince me to vote Tory.”

Cardiff North Conservatives did not respond to our request for comment.

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