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