The Liberal Democrats, under pressure over a forged email scandal, have altered their official explanation of their controversial £100,000 sale of ‘data services’.
The party’s customer was Britain Stronger in Europe (BSiE) and the work was done before the 2016 Brexit referendum – in which BSiE was the official Remain campaign group.
Last week the Lib Dems told openDemocracy – via that forged email – that these services amounted to “delivering a correctly formatted copy of the [national electoral] register for the database [BSiE] were using”.
On Tuesday, party leader Jo Swinson told the Metro newspaper: “What was done, was that voting lists that we have access to, the campaign operation have access to, we basically processed that data.”
That same day, however, the Lib Dems admitted to openDemocracy that they had done much more than process the voting lists in return for BSiE’s £100,000. They had also worked on BSiE’s voter information database to add phone numbers to the records and to provide data to a major political campaigning company.
openDemocracy also understands that details of the controversial deal were deemed sensitive by senior party officials at the time, and that steps were taken to minimise the paper trail surrounding the transaction.
The party’s latest explanation comes back into line with what it insisted last year when it told the Information Commissioner’s Office that its deal with BSiE involved only a “simple enhancement” of the UK electoral register. At the time it offered the example of matching phone numbers to lists of voters, and also stated that it “had worked with a third-party group which took subsets of the electoral register”.
On Tuesday, the party clarified that the phone numbers were “supplied by BSiE themselves, or their suppliers”, not the Lib Dems themselves.
It also revealed that the “third-party group” it had worked with was The Messina Group, run by Jim Messina – a former operations chief in Barack Obama’s White House who also worked as a consultant for the Conservatives under both David Cameron and Theresa May.
The party explained that it had worked with BSiE because “BSiE had no data staff capable of managing the data collection process”. In its initial response in the forged email, it also said that the Electoral Commission had approved the sharing of the electoral register.
New details obtained by openDemocracy, and in statements issued by the Lib Dems since the scandal broke last week, now show that the party’s then chief executive, Tim Gordon, supervised the data services sale to BSiE in 2016. Gordon is understood to have privately explained to colleagues that the data sale could be seen as sensitive and controversial, and so steps were taken to minimise the paper trail for the deal.
openDemocracy has been shown evidence, which the ICO has also seen, that Gordon, along with other party officials, arranged the £100,000 deal with Ryan Coetzee, a former South African MP who had been the director of strategy for Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg up to the 2015 general election. After the Lib Dems were routed in the 2015 poll, Coetzee joined BSiE as its director of strategy.
Coetzee had worked closely with Gordon during his time at the Lib Dems and had been instrumental in refining the party’s new data-driven systems designed to collect details on voters.
In 2010-11 the Lib Dems bought an election database system known as VAN (Voter Activation Network) that had been designed in the US for the 2008 Obama campaign. They redesigned VAN for the UK, rebranding it as Connect.
Coetzee, when he arrived at BSiE, would have had knowledge of the valuable databases he had been using for years at the Lib Dems. According to the Lib Dems, BSiE uses VAN – the parent of the Lib Dems’ own system.
openDemocracy contacted Coetzee in Dubai, where he is now based. Asked about the commercial deal between the Lib Dems and BSiE, he said: “This was a long time ago… I don’t remember anything about this. I don’t know anything about this.”
In a video produced for Lib Dem activists ahead of the 2015 election, the party is said to have boasted of “technology that no other party has”, which could use data obtained through canvassing to micro-target voters.
The Lib Dem activist and computer blogger Mark Pack wrote in 2011, shortly after the party purchased and customised VAN, that he was “impressed”, adding that the “ability to mix and match data access” will “come in useful for the Liberal Democrats in elections”.
On Tuesday, the Lib Dems told us: “At no stage was there any crossover or sharing data” between the party’s Connect system and BSiE’s VAN.
The forged email
Ahead of publishing the initial data sale story – which said the ICO was holding back details of its investigation into the deal between the Lib Dems and BSiE until after the election – a request for comment was sent to the Lib Dem press office. No reply was received.
Lawyers acting for Jo Swinson and the Lib Dems subsequently insisted a reply had been sent, and attached a document which purported to prove this. In a series of threatening legal letters, they attempted to have the article removed and a full apology issued by openDemocracy.
Jo Swinson’s position as head of a party fighting the general election was cited by their lawyers, Goodman Derrick, as one of the reasons they were demanding an immediate retraction.
Swinson’s lawyers finally admitted nothing had been sent to openDemocracy – in other words, that the email was a fake.
Following a ‘Channel 4 News’ report on the faked email, the party said that the “chronology of the email” was clouding its attempt to challenge the story of the £100,000 data sale.
The party’s statement to ‘Channel 4 News’ also said that “no senior officials were aware of the forged email before it was sent”.
In an interview with ‘ITV News’, Swinson said: “There was an email sent which was inaccurate, which was faked and that’s not acceptable. There is an investigation and the member of staff has been suspended.” She added: “We have taken swift action and are investigating.”
openDemocracy has made repeated attempts to contact Gordon. Details of the initial story and its further developments have been put to him. So far he has not responded.