Stuart Coster: There is anger from the editors of real local newspapers at the fake versions from the Lib Dems

16 Apr

Stuart Coster is the Editor of LibDemWatch and previously co-founder of the People’s Pledge campaign for an EU referendum.

As campaigning steps up ahead of May’s local elections, the Liberal Democrats have come under fresh fire from local newspapers and the Society of Editors over a new spate of the party’s fake newspaper leaflets.

Hot on the heels of the Lib Dems’ recent uncaring refusal to stop distributing political leaflets during lockdown, the party has once again been caught putting out propaganda mocked up to mislead voters into thinking they are reading independent local journalism.

Examples of phoney ‘newspapers’ distributed by the Lib Dems in recent weeks include the Welwyn Hatfield News, Wiltshire Post, South Oxfordshire Observer, Andover South Gazette, and Maidenhead News – all displaying fake names, using non-party colours, and any references to their political origin in tiny or peripheral text.

No doubt few would see much wrong with giving political leaflets a more reader-friendly, tabloid style. But to use bogus ‘local newspaper’ mastheads and write them in pseudo journalistic styles, with references to their true source tucked away in tiny print, as the Liberal Democrats are again doing, is clearly stepping far over that line into being deliberately misleading.

The response from genuine local newspapers and journalists to Lib Dem mimicry of their publications has been predictably explosive. First to take aim at the latest wave of deceptive Lib Dem leaflets was the Northampton Chronicle & Echo, which issued a warning to readers about its fake rival – the ‘Northants Citizen’.

In a hard-hitting editorial, the Chronicle cited how the local Lib Dem leaflet described itself misleadingly as a “Free local newspaper”, warning readers:

“Nowhere on the front page does it identify itself as a party-political freesheet produced by the Liberal Democrats. Only in tiny print on the back page …  There’s even a comment piece inside, mimicking the traditional leader column of quality newspapers.”

“Let’s be clear. It is nothing more than a political propaganda sheet masquerading as local news,” the Chronicle thundered.

Pete Gavan, the Editor of the Swindon Advertiser and Oxford Mail, also shared his dismay at the fake ‘Wiltshire Post’, saying:

“It’s very disappointing to see the Lib Dems trying to pass off this material as a ‘local newspaper’, which it most certainly is not. We work extremely hard in our communities to be the trusted impartial news source and actions like this only go to undermine that.”

The row has quickly escalated with the Society of Editors writing to Lib Dem leader, Sir Ed Davey, demanding an end to the misleading tactic “once and for all”.

The Society’s executive director, Ian Murray, commented:

“It seems that no matter how many times this issue is raised, the Lib Dems continue to pretend there is not a problem here. The simple fact is that if the party were serious about not attempting to mislead the public in this way then a plain – and large – Lib Dems logo on the front page of their local publications would do the trick.”

The editorial director of Newsquest local media group, Toby Granville, has also branded the Lib Dems a “disgrace” over the continuing ploy, after Darlington & Stockton Times editor, Hannah Chapman, posted a picture online of a Lib Dem leaflet calling itself the ‘Hambleton Herald’, which she received through her door.

In response, Granville blasted:

“Totally misleading the public by purporting to be a legitimate local newspaper and undermining our industry’s fight against fake news. Shame on you Lib Dems.”

The News Media Association, trade body for the regional and national press, has also now waded into the row, launching a campaign called ‘Don’t Be Duped’ urging the Lib Dems to end these misleading tactics.

Introducing the campaign, NMA chairman Henry Faure Walker wrote:

“Sadly, in recent months fake local newspapers published by the Lib Dems have started popping up again. Make no mistake, these publications are designed to fool you into thinking you are reading independent journalism. In fact, they are the exact opposite – party political propaganda sheets masquerading as real newspapers. It has been reported that some of the leaflets are not clearly marked as being produced by the Lib Dems. We think this cynical attempt to mislead you is wrong. It undermines trust in both politicians and independent local newspapers.”

The Lib Dems’ use of the ploy to mislead voters continues despite widespread criticism for the same low tricks at the 2019 general election – and the Electoral Commission subsequently warning that it shouldn’t continue.

In its report into the 2019 general election campaign, the Commission highlighted fake newspapers as one of the public’s key concerns about “misleading campaign techniques” during elections, singling out that “Some leaflets were designed to look like local newspapers. Others used colours normally associated with other parties”. Yet both such shameful ploys remain in evidence, for example, in Lib Dem MP, Layla Moran’s, latest ‘South Oxfordshire Observer’ leaflet.

Just as warnings of health risks to the public of continuing to leaflet during lockdown went unheeded, the concerns of the official body responsible for supervising our elections about the party’s deliberately misleading leaflets also appear to have fallen on deaf ears at Lib Dem HQ.

Such matters do not appear to concern the Liberal Democrats it seems, if it furthers their own narrow political interests.

The base idea of fake newspapers is clearly to fool people into thinking they are reading dispassionate journalistic reports and analysis on local politics – perhaps, even, a local newspaper endorsement – when in reality the content is of course only a highly sensationalised version of one party’s view.

As the Northampton Chronicle summed up perfectly:

“When political movements try to impersonate us, we are undermined. When members of the public realise they have been fooled by a medium that looks like ours, the next time they read journalism produced by us, they may trust it that bit less. This all leads to those in power becoming more powerful, more protected from scrutiny and less accountable to the public.”

An approach to politics that, if actions speak louder than words, seems sadly to have become a characteristic of the Liberal Democrats.

Have you seen any Lib Dem fake newspapers being distributed in your area? Please add a comment below with details or drop LibDemWatch a line direct through our website. We’ll be drawing up a full report of all misleading examples we’ve seen for submission to the relevant electoral authorities.


Starmer’s “paint-by-numbers” politics does not a Prime Minister make

4 Feb

It’s not been the best of times for Keir Starmer.

First there was the incident at PMQs. Boris Johnson accused him of backing the European Medicines Agency (which he did in 2017), only for the Labour leader to call this “absolute nonsense”.

Later it transpired Starmer had thought Johnson suggested he wanted to join the EU’s vaccine scheme and was forced to say he’d been “wrong” and “misheard” the PM.

Then there were the polls. They showed that Labour’s support has stalled in recent weeks, with the party attracting just four per cent of people who voted Conservative in 2019’s General Election.

Given the challenges the Tories have faced managing the pandemic, many have wondered why Starmer hasn’t had more of an impact.

These events, paired with others, culminated in a media onslaught, with commentators asking what the point is of the Labour leader.

How the tables have turned… It’s hard to remember now but when Starmer first took over from Jeremy Corbyn many newspapers were dazzled by His Royal Prosecutor, whose legal background they deemed kryptonite to the Conservatives.

As one gushed: “the word [forensic] doesn’t actually begin to capture the quietly terrifying force of a skilled former Chief Prosecutor assembling all the evidence and nailing it piece by damning piece to the accused.”

Strangely enough, it strikes me that some of the issues Starmer is now having are a result of the experience that was once so admired.

For one, it’s not that obvious what he stands for compared to Johnson (albeit, the pandemic is testing his libertarian ideals), as Starmer spends so much time trying to spot flaws in his opponent’s case.

This is partly why he has been deemed “Captain Hindsight” and accused of fence sitting, as Starmer’s is more tactical than ideological, often looking for the next move to outsmart his opponents, and somewhat risk averse about setting out his own agenda.

Sometimes Starmer appears all over the place ideologically. This same week a video came out of him as a young man suggesting the UK should “abolish the monarchy” (and people have not forgotten he was Corbyn’s deputy).

At the same time, a leaked document from Labour showed suggestions to win back the Red Wall, which included making more of the Union Jack and army veterans, to show patriotism.

I suspect what people would like most from Starmer is authenticity, not this “paint-by-numbers” politics of trying to predict what voters might want.

And it’s a sensible strategy – it’s far better to consistent in one’s vision than to wobble about depending on political events and sentiment.

The other issue with Starmer – and this is something of a brief round up – is a lack of imagination as to how to tackle Coronavirus.

Granted, Conservatives have had issues with this too – as we’re fighting a novel virus.

But some of the most memorable moments in this pandemic are when people had ideas. Tony Blair, for example, suggested a new vaccine strategy for the Government, which was listened to much more than any of Labour’s arbitrary criticisms on schools.

The most imaginative Starmer has been was during a podium appearance, in which he demanded a “circuit breaker” lockdown for the country. There was also the idea of moving all teachers up the vaccine queue, which clearly doesn’t make sense, and is arguably dangerous – as I have recently written.

So the party clearly needs some creativity on its front bench to make headway – and it should remember that many of its supporters will want an opposition that pushes for reopenings, as much as lockdown – not least people who need their children back in school to get back to work.

The last huge challenge for Starmer – and, again, this is a speedy roundup – is regaining trust with the electorate, particularly after Brexit.

Perhaps Labour thinks that now the deal is done that people will forget about Starmer’s time with Corbyn and the second referendum, so long as he waves the union flag.

But it seems to me he will be punished at a nationwide level, and it will be interesting to see the result of May’s local elections.

The shame for Labour is that there are lots of easy wins for them to boost their ratings. The most obvious is fighting woke ideology, which the Conservatives (bar a few) seem desperate to avoid. There’s a clear opening for another party to fight back here.

There are also things like solving the housing crisis and promoting the ability to have a family that lots of people would like. It’s not actually that difficult to think of ways to make headway.

Ironically, it’s Starmer’s wish to be Captain Foresight that’s holding him back.

Why the Government is under pressure to confirm the date of the local elections

9 Jan

Last month, we looked at the measures the Government is bringing forward to try and ensure that this year’s local elections, having been postponed for a year due to the pandemic, proceed as planned in May.

These included increased campaigning expenses and proposals for ’emergency proxy voting’ for those forced to self-isolate.

Yet with the nation plunged back into lockdown, local government figures are again concerned about the prospect of delays and have demanded clarity from Ministers about whether or not the elections will go ahead. So what’s going on?

For its part, the Government continues to insist that it will be possible, using the safeguards it is putting in place, to conduct “covid-secure” elections on schedule. According to the Cabinet Office:

“Primary Legislation provides that the elections will go ahead in May 2021. We continue to work closely with the electoral community and public health bodies to resolve challenges and ensure everyone will be able to cast their vote safely and securely – and in a way of their choosing. Measures are planned to support absent voting at short notice. Guidance will be published in good time ahead of the polls and this matter will be kept under review.”  

Inside Whitehall, the difficulty is seen to lie less with polling day itself than with the broader campaigning period. If the Government isn’t able to start easing lockdown restrictions as swiftly as planned, it may remain illegal for activists to do in-person campaigning. And if different parts of the country are descending through the tiers at different speeds, that risks a regionally-unequal democratic process.

Moreover, there are legislative challenges to further postponement. The new election date is enshrined in legislation, and the power to delay them under the Coronavirus Act has expired. So any delay would require fresh primary legislation, and that – on top of the need to keep election administrators properly informed – places its own time limits on the window of decision.

(And that is before getting to the devolved administrations. Each of these has the power to delay their own elections, but in Wales the timing of the Police & Crime Commissioner ones are reserved to Westminster. Postponing these would also require fresh primary legislation, but that process can’t start until, at minimum, the Welsh Government has made its mind up about the Welsh Parliament vote.)

For all this bullishness, however, the Government is keeping the matter under review and delay has not been ruled out. There is also no sign that Westminster is exploring all of the options being explored by the Scottish Government, which include things like an all-postal election.

The consensus between Whitehall figures and Conservatives in local government seems to be that if the elections are put off, it cannot be for very long – perhaps just back into June, when the NHS is under that much less pressure and the vaccine rollout is more advanced.

Emergency proxies and postal votes: how the Government intends to ensure the local elections go ahead in May

19 Dec

As the nation staggers towards 2021, the forecast for next year looks somewhat v-shaped. The immediate aftermath of Christmas looks set to be dominated by another national lockdown (or whatever ‘Tier 4’ is). But after that, the vaccination programme holds out hope of a return to something like the old normal by the summer.

Which raises the question of what to do about the local elections, which are currently scheduled for May.

They have already been delayed once already, and both the Scottish and Welsh governments are making plans that include the power to delay their own elections yet again in the event that the public situation is not where we might want it to be when the day arrives.

The Government have taken a different approach, and no plans are being laid to prepare for a delay to the polls. Instead, ministers are taking practical steps to ensure that they can be conducted as safely as possible.

For starters, although practical and security considerations militated against an all-postal election, there is still for the moment a postal ballot for everyone who wants one. This will change if and when the mooted Electoral Integrity Bill hits the statute book and tightens up the relevant rules, but for now it is simple enough to get one and the parties, as well as local authorities, can and likely will run campaigns to make sure their voters are fully aware of this.

To make that slightly easier, the Government has also uprated local election expenses for the first time since 2014, lifting them to £806 per constituency (up from £740) and 7p per elector (up from 6p). This will give candidates a bit more to invest in online, postal, or other Covid-secure campaigning. In a recent written statement Chloe Smith, the Constitution Minister, acknowledged the pandemic as a reason for doing this now:

“The Government is also mindful that the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic may result in a greater emphasis on postal and digital campaigning ahead of May’s elections; this adds to the case for limits to be updated and uprated.”

Ministers are apparently looking at supplementing all of this this with provisions for ’emergency proxy voting’, in the event that someone who had intended to vote in person needs to self-isolate – this could apparently be done through secondary legislation – and by working to make sure that polling stations are Covid-secure.

This reluctance to delay the elections a second time is understandable. But given the obvious risk that face-to-face campaigning poses (especially to older voters and activists), there will likely be an electoral penalty to be paid if the worst happens and the Government has not left itself the means to postpone the polls. CCHQ must hope that this all-chips-on-May approach is a justified vote of confidence in the vaccination programme.

Amanda Milling: We’re delivering on our promises – and couldn’t do it without grassroots support

12 Dec

Amanda Milling is the Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase and co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

This time last year Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party secured a momentous election win. It was a win that gave us the majority we needed to end the gridlock in Parliament and move the country forward.

The fact that millions of people put their faith in us, many in seats that had been historically Labour, has allowed this Conservative Government to get the country moving forward by delivering on the promises we were elected on last year.

We promised to get Brexit done, and we left the European Union on the 31st January. We promised to take back control of our borders, and last month we passed the Immigration Act, which will see the introduction of a fairer points-based system with people coming to the UK on the basis of what they have to offer, not where they come from.

We promised to put more money into our NHS, and in March we passed the NHS Funding Act which has provided the biggest-ever cash boost to our frontline NHS services with £33.9 billion a year by 2023/2024. We promised to deliver 50,000 more nurses, and in one year there are over 14,800 more and 6,250 more doctors. We promised to recruit 20,000 police officers and in one year we’ve recruited nearly 6,000. We promised to invest more in education so that young people across the country can have a better start in life. That’s why we’ve delivered a £14.4 billion funding boost for schools over the next three years.

We promised to level up across the country and we’re investing in the biggest ever infrastructure project to link our country by rail and road. Our Towns Fund is providing 101 towns throughout the UK with money to improve their areas increasing jobs and investment.

Even with the fight against Covid-19 – which has seen us put in place a £280 billion economic support package to support jobs and livelihoods, provide over 30,000 ventilators to our NHS, deliver billions of items of PPE, conduct over 40 million Covid tests, and become the first country in the world to roll out a vaccine – we have remained determined to deliver on the promises we made to you last year.

However, none of this would have been possible without the many hours so many of you, our dedicated supporters, activists and members, put into the General Election campaign. In the cold, dark and rain you trampled hundreds of thousands of miles delivering leaflets and knocking on doors to get the Conservative message out there. You spent hours on the telephone asking people to vote.

Without your efforts on the doorstep and the endless nights of telephone canvassing, we would not have defeated Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.

It’s why today the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are hosting a virtual members event to say thank you for your support and mark this momentous occasion one year on.
This is the biggest grassroots fundraiser we’ve ever held and you will be able to ask Johnson and Rishi Sunak questions directly on everything from the election to getting Brexit done and the unprecedented year 2020 has been.

This time last year none of us could have predicted a 2020 like the one we’ve had, but in the face of adversity we stepped up to the challenge and put in place measures to protect the NHS, jobs, and livelihoods. And with the roll out of the vaccine this week there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Next year we have a bumper crop of elections with local, Police and Crime Commissioner, mayoral and elections in Wales and Scotland.

So I hope you’ve got your delivery bags and boots to the ready as we get back out on the campaign trail, abiding by the latest Covid guidelines, working to get Conservatives in charge of your local services and strengthening our union with more Conservative voices in power.

There’s no denying these elections will be tough but I have no doubt that your hard work on the campaign trail will help. Conservative councils, mayors, and PCCs have a proven track record of providing good local services, securing vital investment to boost jobs, and keeping communities safe.

The alternative is Labour wasting taxpayers money and playing politics for their own personal PR rather than working to deliver for the people they represent.

Last year showed that if we work together as one team we can achieve great things. I look forward to joining you as we get out delivering leaflets, following the guidance, and hit the phones to get even more Conservatives into public office.