Elections 2024: Conservatives Ramping Up Disinformation Campaign

Elections 2024: Conservatives Ramping Up Disinformation Campaign

As the mayoral and council elections loom, evidence mounts of disinformation tactics to smear the opposition.

All across England, local elections for 2600 councillors and 10 mayors are looming, and the Conservatives are terrified. With Labour polling at 43% (23% ahead), they are right to be concerned, not only about the forthcoming general election, but about local elections too.

In an effort to stem the tide, the Conservatives are treading on treacherous terrain with their latest attempts to spread fear and disinformation about the opposition. The main focus – and likely no surprise to those living north of Watford – seems to be on London; the main target, London mayor, Sadiq Khan.

The Disinformation Disease

Disinformation in political campaigning is hardly new. In fact, we’ve become sadly familiar with lies and untruths being spread by certain political candidates, especially during and following Brexit. It’s a disease that is spreading, and not just in the UK. You only have to look at Donald Trump in America, or those in British politics aiming to emulate him, for plenty of examples of truth-twisting.

Worrying as the spreading of disinformation is, it raises other serious concerns. If we are surrounded by disinformation, we can easily become inured to it. It becomes the new normal. Worse still – and clearly this is the aim of these campaigns – people will be tricked into believing the untruths and treat them as facts. Sadly, some will be too lazy, or too indifferent, to bother to check for themselves. A fact, no doubt, that the Conservatives are relying on. After all, it worked superbly with Brexit.


False Leaflets, False Claims

The London Conservatives have been engaging in a campaign aimed at spreading fear around Khan’s supposed policies. A leaflet being put through Londoners’ doors warns of the Labour mayor’s proposed policy to further tax drivers with a ‘pay-per-mile’ scheme – a policy that has been repeatedly denied.

More fuel has been added to the fire by right-wing media – the Telegraph and the Daily Mail – who claimed that Khan was investing £150mn in “secret” technology aimed at facilitating a pay-per-mile scheme. However, Khan has declared that “as long as I am mayor”, there will be no such charges.

Conservative candidate for the London Assembly, Callum McGillivray, described the non-existent pay-per-mile scheme, in a video on social media, as “the final deadly blow to motorists, carers, small businesses and tradespeople”. Had he been talking about the Conservatives themselves, his statement would hardly have needed any fact-checking.

The Conservative candidate for London mayor, Susan Hall, is not averse to a little misrepresentation herself. A regular critic of Khan’s ultra low emission zone (ULEZ), Hall describes the supposed pay-per-mile scheme as ULEZ 2.0 and a “disaster for London”. Not only would it drive families and businesses “into debt” but it could force them “out of London” altogether. While Hall may have strong feelings about a non-existent Labour mayoral policy, surely that doesn’t justify sharing a ‘photo’ of a non-existent road sign – depicting a non-existent pay-per-mile zone – on social media. As of the time of writing, the tweet in question is still showing on Hall’s timeline, albeit it with a ‘readers added context’ warning of the inaccuracy.


Disinformation: Facing The Facts

Full Fact, a team of independent fact finders (with 229,500 followers) have expressed concerns about Conservative Party claims in their leaflets. “Deceptive campaign practices”, they say, “can mislead the public during elections and that’s not on”.

Full Fact are also concerned that political parties are dressing up their leaflets to look like local newspapers. So concerned, in fact, that they have started a petition demanding improvements to the rules around the transparency of campaign materials. Perhaps someone should draw their attention to the Conservatives replacing their usual blue leaflets with green ones, in an effort – it would seem – to disguise the party the candidate actually represents.

The Full Fact petition – Stop politicians from pretending to be your local newspaper – aims to end these deceptive practices, which are “misleading the public and undermining trust in our institutions”. Perhaps they could also come up with a campaign to stop politicians pretending to put the country first.

When things get as bad for the country as they have over recent years, it’s not uncommon for the public to be turned off politics completely; to believe that nobody is listening, our leaders are only in it for themselves and that all politicians are the same. Yet despite all the damage, the waste of taxpayers’ money, Brexit, political scandals and more, the polls would strongly suggest that the public can differentiate between the two main parties. We can only hope that they use this last opportunity before the general election to give voice to those feelings.

Just 18 months ago, Rishi Sunak became the latest unelected Conservative leader/prime minister. In his inaugural speech to the country, he pledged a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. The country, still reeling from the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss eras, were desperate to believe every word. They don’t anymore. Hopefully they won’t believe a word of the latest propaganda campaign either, and they’ll consign the misleading leaflets, and the Conservatives, to the bin.

Sue Wilson MBE
A Rose by Any Other Name?

A Rose by Any Other Name?

Multi-millionaire, Richard Tice, has got his knickers in a twist over the definition of Reform UK, formerly known as the Brexit Party. Reform UK – or to give it its official Companies House title, Reform UK Party Limited – has been labelled as a far-right party, a description Tice says is both “defamatory and libellous”.

The BBC has been forced to apologise after labelling Reform UK a ‘far-right’ party in a recent news report. Honorary President and major shareholder, Nigel Farage, told GB News that he “hopes no other media outlets make the same mistake”. Whether Tice’s threat of legal action will extend beyond Britain’s shores to challenge any international media using the same label – such as Le Monde in France – remains to be seen.

Far-right definition

Wikipedia describes far-right politics, or right-wing extremism, as “a spectrum of political thought that tends to be radically conservativeultra-nationalist, and authoritarian”, often with “nativist tendencies”. The site equates the far-right with fascism and Nazism, and includes the National Front, Britain First and the British National Party (BNP) on a list of far-right groups.

While all three groups have faced bans on social media, Tice’s concerns regarding Reform UK’s description are more likely of a financial nature. He fears that the far-right label could affect the party’s access to bank accounts, loans and mortgages.

MA rose by any other name?

While Tice may not like the characterisation by some of his party as far-right, his policies bear a striking resemblance to other groups that satisfy that description. It’s a familiar list that includes anti-immigrant rhetoric, low taxes and patriotic slogans – the “Let’s Make Britain Great” catchphrase being remarkably similar to the National Front’s “Make Britain great again”.

Of course, many of these kinds of policies, and this kind of language, can be heard even from our own government. On occasion, the Tories themselves have been labelled a far-right party, and there are certainly factions within government actively and deliberately pushing the party in that direction.


Splitting the populist vote

After Lee Anderson’s recent defection from the Conservatives to Reform UK, no doubt Tice & co. will be looking to encourage more like-minded populists to jump ship. Claims that he has been offering financial incentives to Tory MPs have been strenuously denied by Tice who said he was merely offering Anderson (back in November 2023), “the chance to change the shape of the debate”. A supposed offer – a guaranteed matching of MPs salary for five years – that Anderson refused at the time.

Tice clearly believes that the way to electoral success is by fighting the government on a populist front. With Reform UK now third in the latest Westminster Voting Intention polls on 14%, and Tories on just 20%, they must believe their plan is working. It may even result in them achieving an electoral first -something they never managed as the Brexit Party – representation in the House of Commons.

In a recent YouGov poll in January, the Conservative Party was “seen as being as right-wing as UKIP was” between 2014 and 2016. Between 2017 and 2019, UKIP was perceived as moving further to the right, with scores rising from 67 to 69 points. The Conservatives – having moved seven points more to the right when Boris Johnson took over – scored 62 points. As at October 2023, Reform UK scored 68 points, “notably to the right of the Conservatives”.

In the run up to the election, the Tories and Reform UK will no doubt continue to battle each other for the populist vote. With policies almost indistinguishable from one other, they’ll be unwilling to call out extremism from within their own ranks, while hypocritically denouncing it in each other. Both will likely at times be branded right-wing or far-right, whether they accept the characterisation or not.

If Reform UK, and the Conservatives, aren’t far-right parties, then what are they? Centre-right? Perhaps. Or at least, that’s what they would like the country to believe. As to which is the more right-wing of the two, you pays your money, you takes your choice.

Meanwhile, as the Tories and Reform UK focus their attentions on battling each other, Keir Starmer will be counting his lucky stars and enjoying the ride all the way to number 10. Hopefully, for the sake of the country, very few far-right-wing politicians will making that same journey to Westminster.

Sue Wilson MBE

Hunt for optimism

Hunt for optimism

The chancellor’s economic plans for growth require a good dose of optimism, a dollop of delusion and some rose-tinted spectacle

Sue Wilson MBE bySue Wilson MBE

On Friday morning, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt outlined his economic plans for growth to a business audience in London. In his first major speech since the Autumn statement in November, he promised to use “Brexit freedoms” to boost economic growth in the UK.

According to Hunt, Britain is “poised to play a leading role in Europe and across the world” and the government’s plan for growth “is necessitated, energised and made possible by Brexit”. All that’s required is a good dose of optimism, a dollop of delusion and some rose-tinted spectacles.

Not all doom and gloom

Hunt criticised the media for suggesting that Britain is facing an “existential crisis” and “teetering on the edge”. The “gloom” being expressed about our country’s economic outlook was “based on statistics that do not reflect the whole picture”. Statistics, it seems, can only be relied upon when they support the story that the government is trying to peddle. In a desperate attempt to find some evidence of growth during the government’s time in power, Hunt could only state that the UK had “grown faster than France, Japan and Italy” by going back to 2010.

Without a hint of irony, Hunt suggested that “confidence in the future starts with honesty about the present”. Not sure when, exactly, that honesty about Brexit is expected to start, but there certainly was little to be found in this speech. Or any mention of so-called Brexit benefits.

When challenged to concede that Brexit was causing problems for business, Hunt admitted there had been some “short term disruption”, but said it was wrong to focus on those issues “without looking at the opportunities”. Whether business owners are cognisant of those unidentified opportunities, or would agree that three years of disruption could be classed as ‘short term’, is another matter altogether.

Hunt’s cunning plan

The plans for growth seem to rely on three things, all supposedly made possible by Brexit and based on “British genius” and “hard work”. The first – “restraint on spending” – effectively means £100bn being cut from government spending over the next two years. But balancing the Treasury budget does not equate to balancing the economy – or levelling-up, for that matter – and public services need investment, not further cuts.

Then we have Hunt’s plan to turn the UK into “the world’s next Silicon Valley”. Not exactly a new idea, and we’re hardly overrun with recent examples of entrepreneurial success. Hunt also aims to exploit “the freedoms which Brexit provides” and raise productivity levels. As with all other elements of his cunning plan, the details of how and when were left entirely to our imaginations.

The reaction

If Hunt was expecting wide coverage for his speech, he was to be disappointed. The leading business channel in Europe – CNBC – didn’t even bother to cover it.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) highlighted the failure to announce detailed proposals as a lack of “meat on the bones of his vision”. The BCC also drew attention to the fact that energy costs and exports had not been mentioned. Although Hunt’s plan was a start, they said, we have moved “no further forward”. They ended their response by suggesting that the chancellor read the BCC’s own business manifesto “for realistic policies to help get back to growth”.

Labour’s shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, agreed with Hunt that the UK has “so much potential”. Unsurprisingly, she claimed only her party could seize the opportunities and pointed out the economic failings of the last 13 years of Tory government.

Sarah Olney, the LibDems Treasury spokesperson, compared the chancellor’s comments to “an unfaithful partner asking for yet another chance”, adding “why should we trust them again?” Why indeed! The government’s record, she added, was “nothing less than a shambles” and the public would see through this “desperate attempt” to rewrite history.

On the government website, Hunt’s speech is described as “his vision for long-term prosperity in the UK”. A long-term view will be of little comfort to those feeling the effects of the cost-of-living crisis right now. Or to businesses suffering from additional red tape and expense thanks to Brexit. Considering that the Conservatives are likely to be kicked out of power next year makes such claims rather pointless. No wonder so few bothered to pay much attention.

Collins English dictionary defines optimism as “the feeling of being hopeful about the future or about the success of something in particular”. Not for the first time, we are being asked by the government to ignore reality and be optimistic about our country’s future. We are being entreated to believe in the cult of Brexit, despite all the evidence of economic damage and the government’s own appalling record of management. It might have worked six years ago. It might even have worked three years ago. It won’t work now.

Open letter to Truss #3 – October 2022

Open letter to Truss #3 – October 2022

by Sue Wilson MBE

Dear Liz,

Since our earlier correspondence, (December 2021 and January 2022) it’s good to see that you have finally ditched the multiple hats and roles in favour of focussing on just one job. The big one. I guess I should start by offering my congratulations, but as you have been under-performing so spectacularly, that wouldn’t seem appropriate under the circumstances.

Given that you have only been in the job such a short amount of time, (is it really only a month? – it seems so much longer), I have held off from writing until now. Let’s wait until after the party conference, I told myself, and give her a chance to turn this thing around and show us what she’s got. Sadly, it seems, we had already seen the best you had to offer. Though frankly, you and I had far more in common before the dreaded (don’t worry, I won’t mention the ‘B’ word) referendum.

So, let me get to the reason for my missive. I am writing to complain. I appreciate this will not come as a surprise as I imagine the vast majority of your correspondence is made up of complaints of some description. In addition, in light of your recent party conference speech, the list of those with genuine reasons for complaint has increased exponentially.

It seems that the list of your supposed enemies has expanded considerably, and we all share a shiny new label. Not only is the previous insult de jour of “Remainer” no longer in vogue but now I’m a “Br*x*t denier” and a member of the “anti-growth coalition”! At least your name calling is not limited to us pro-Europeans. It now also applies to Labour, the unions, environmentalists, think tanks and talking heads.

I’m sure if you, or your script writers had taken just a bit of time, you could have swept up a lot more supposed enemies in that meaningless list. After all, considering the state of your party at the moment, surely you could have included a few disloyal backbenchers in your catalogue of reprobates.

Of course, there will always be a ready supply of useful idiots, like Nadhim Zahawi, to defend your nonsense, and I can live with that. After all, when you fall, you’ll be taking a lot of them with you. Even your former candidate for the top job, Tom Tugendhat, has been waffling on about growth in your defence. Apparently, growth grows opportunities, lives and futures, and you are right to be focussing on delivering it for everyone. Well, everyone except the poor, the hungry, the disabled, the needy etc., etc. Well, speaking as a non-economist, non-expert I can assure you that is complete “bollocks”, as we’ve been saying about Br*x*t (enter six letter word beginning with ‘Br*’ and ending with ‘x*t’ here).

To your credit, I don’t doubt for one minute that you believe all this rhetorical horse manure you are spouting, even in the face of ample evidence to the contrary. Certainly, the Bank of England doesn’t believe it, nor the financial markets. But I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt as you are still relatively new at this game. After all, it’s only a maximum of two years until the country decides on our next PM, rather than a few thousand elderly, white, wealthy right-wingers. Assuming, of course, that your party doesn’t decide before that to give another ERG supporter a go at running the country.

Another complaint, before I toddle off to count what’s left of my diminishing state pension. Could you please instruct your cabinet and ministers to stop pretending that this is a brand-new government. Anyone would think you were trying to suggest there has been a different party/government running things for the last 12 years. As the longest serving member of the Conservative government that is currently in power, and has been for over a decade, I’m sure you will agree. After all, there is so much (not!) to take credit for.

Finally, could we please stop with the three-word soundbites and slogans like the irritating “getting Britain moving” nonsense. Laxative commercials have had more convincing slogans. As for answering questions, let me be very clear (see what I did there?) – your stock answers are now so familiar that there’s really no point giving any more interviews. The whole country can predict how you will respond with considerably more accuracy than you can predict the economy or public opinion.

Despite your protestations that you are “listening” and you “get it”, I’m afraid I remain (no pun intended) sceptical. I don’t believe you have a “clear plan” (unless you mean one that you can see through), I don’t believe your party has the “determination to deliver” or that you can “unleash the full potential of our great country”.

If I’m being totally honest, I don’t think you do either. So, why not save us all two years more nonsense and go for the mandate from the country you already claim to have. Call an election. Put your money – rather than ours for a change – where your mouth is. If you don’t mind me finishing with one of your own quotes, “that is how we will build a new Britain for a new era”. You know it makes sense, and I’m sure, in the end, you’ll be only too glad to see the back of that wallpaper when you are “moving on up” and out!

Yours hopefully,

Sue Wilson MBE

Ukrainians in Spain

Ukrainians in Spain

The crisis is Ukraine has been at the forefront of our minds since the war began over a month ago, writes Bremain Chair Sue Wilson MBE for The Olive Press. In particular, the plight of Ukrainian refugees has seen the governments and the peoples of Europe open their hearts, minds and wallets to help those in desperate need.

In an effort to understand what more could be done to help, and what motivated people to provide support, funding or even accommodation, I spoke to some of those affected.

I met Anastasia Ka and her 11 year old daughter in my home town of Alcossebre.  She had flown into Spain from Poland, having travelled from her home in Lviv. Her parents decided to stay in Ukraine. “They didn’t feel safe, but they did feel comfortable”, Anastasia told me. From the start of the war, life was different. The experience of having to move to safety underground every time a government alert was received – sometimes several times a day, or night – became too much for Anastasia. It was impossible to sleep, to wash her hair, to work or to study. However, Anastasia did manage to volunteer for the Red Cross at the railway station, helping people and their pets to leave. Worried for her daughter, despite it being “difficult to leave the motherland”, she travelled to Poland to start her journey.

As Lviv is a tourist town, and thanks to Anastasia’s intervention, those safety alerts are now in five languages, to keep all in Lviv safe, regardless of nationality. On life in Spain, Anastasia told me, “Everyone here asks me how I am. It is difficult to say “bien” or “good” when every day I hear bad news, bombs are going off and people are dying”. When I asked her what she thought would happen back home she said, “War has taught me not to think too much, not to make plans and to live every day like it’s your last”. Anastasia is making the most of the sun and being by the sea. But her dream is for peace to return and to be able to go home as soon as possible.


Anastasia and her daughter have settled in Alcossebre

Anastasia and her daughter have settled in Alcossebre

Candace and David Edwards have donated beds, a travel cot, bedlinen, a high chair and a bag of towels to a group helping Ukrainian refugees in Nerja, as well as making a generous donation to charity. The Edwards have known 61 year old Tania, a Ukrainian/Russian woman, for the last 17 years, describing her as the hardest working person they know. Tania has a married son with two young children back in Ukraine. When war broke out, Tania’s granddaughter was in Germany with her mother, for special medical treatment. Tania’s son managed to get her grandson to the Polish border and he has been reunited with his mother and sister in Germany. However, Tania’s son had to return home to Zaporizhzhia, north-west of Mariupol, partly to fight, but also to support Tania’s disabled sister who is unable to leave. Tania is very concerned for her sister and her son, as soldiers were seen entering the town a few days ago. Candace told me, “I’ve been giving stuff away to Tania over the years to send on to her family in Ukraine. The whole situation is so desperately sad”. 

On February 24, 39 year old Oksana Panchuk and her 11 year old son were woken by an explosion that shook the windows of their Kyiv apartment. A worried phone call from her parents told her “something incomprehensible” was happening and she should move to their home in Zhytomyr for safety. She started packing immediately. Many other Kyiv residents had the same idea, resulting in huge traffic jams and Oksana and her son having to abandon the car and walk 10 kilometres. After a week in Zhytomyr, it was clear that the war was spreading and civilians were being targeted. It was time to move on as “every night my son trembled with fear”.

With relatives in Palma de Mallorca offering help, Oksana and her son got on a bus for Poland, where they were fed and able to rest. They teamed up with a family travelling to Barcelona, then took a ferry to Mallorca where they were met by relatives, who they stayed with initially. Until they found British Palma resident, Tracey O’Rourke, who offered them a room.

Tracey (L) with Oksana and her son

Tracey (L) with Oksana and her son

While Oksana is grateful to feel safe, she is naturally worried about her family back home, who she calls every day. She said, “Every night I wake up and worry about the lives of my parents who stayed in Zhytomyr, my boyfriend who is in Kyiv.” She follows the daily news and “waits for this bloody tragedy to end”. Oksana wants to return home as soon as possible, to help rebuild her country. She added, “we don’t want another country, another life – we want our homeland back”.

Tracey watched and listened to the Ukraine invasion, feeling powerless but determined to act. She felt a connection to the Ukrainian people, with her brother being a historian, a regular visitor to Ukraine and Russia, and her sister-in-law being from Vitebsk. She told me, “I am not simply a horrified observer – I know people in both countries”. When she read that Spain was welcoming fleeing families without visa applications, she made enquiries and started filling out forms. A contact in the Ukrainian church in Palma put her in touch with Oksana’s relatives, whose house was now full of other family members fleeing the war. Tracey said, “this was something practical and meaningful that I was in a position to do”, adding “God forbid, if I was ever in this situation myself, I would hope that someone would do the same for me”.

If these personal stories have inspired you to find out more, or to want to help in any way, then check out the Bremain in Spain dedicated ‘Ukraine in Spain’ page here. On it you will find background information, a list of ways you can help Ukrainian refugees in Spain, plus links to organisations and charities providing much needed aid. Thank you!