David Cameron speaks at a Cameron Direct Q&A session at the Royal Bath and West Show on May 27, 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The pre-election pledges that the Tories are trying to wipe from the internet

"No frontline cuts", "no top-down NHS reorganisations", "no VAT rise" - why the Conservatives are trying to erase all pre-May 2010 speeches and press releases from the internet.

As I reported earlier, the Tories have attempted to erase all pre-May 2010 press releases and speeches from the internet, but what could they possibly have to hide? Here are some suggestions. 

1. No cuts to front-line services

As remarkable as it may seem, David Cameron told Andrew Marr the weekend before the general election that a Conservative government would not cut any front-line services.

What I can tell you is, any cabinet minister, if I win the election, who comes to me and says: "Here are my plans," and they involve front-line reductions, they'll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again. After 13 years of Labour, there is a lot of wasteful spending, a lot of money that doesn't reach the front line.

Since then, 5,870 NHS nurses, 7,968 hospital beds, a third of ambulance stations, 5,362 firefighters and 6,800 frontline police officers have been cut. 

2. "We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT"

In an interview with Jeremy Paxman on 23 April 2010, Cameron said: "We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT. Our first Budget is all about recognising we need to get spending under control rather than putting up tax."

VAT was subsequently raised from 17.5 per cent to a record high of 20 per cent in George Osborne's emergency Budget.

3. Cameron on child benefit: "I wouldn't means-test it"

At a pre-election Cameron Direct event, the Tory leader issued this "read my lips" pledge: "I'm not going to flannel you, I'm going to give it to you straight. I like the child benefit, I wouldn't change child benefit, I wouldn't means-test it, I don't think that is a good idea." The coalition went on to abolish the benefit for higher earners in the Spending Review and froze it for three years. 

4. NHS: "no more top-down reorganisations"

Perhaps most infamously, the Conservatives repeatedly promised before the general election that there would be no more "top-down reorganisations" of the NHS (Andrew Lansley, Conservative Party press release, 11 July 2007). In a speech at the Royal College of Pathologists on 2 November 2009, Cameron said: "With the Conservatives there will be no more of the tiresome, meddlesome, top-down re-structures that have dominated the last decade of the NHS." 

In his 2006 Conservative conference speech, he said: "So I make this commitment to the NHS and all who work in it. No more pointless reorganisations."

The coalition went on to launch the biggest top-down reorganisation of the service in its history.

5. On Education Maintenance Allowances: "we don't have any plans to get rid of them"

At a Cameron Direct event in January 2010, Cameron said: "We've looked at educational maintenance allowances and we haven't announced any plan to get rid of them." Challenged to firm up his pledge, he added: "I said we don't have any plans to get rid of them . . . it's one of those things the Labour Party keep putting out that we are but we're not."

Nine months later, the coalition announced the abolition of EMA, which paid up to £30 a week to 16-to-18-years-olds living in households whose income is less than £30,800 a year, in the Spending Review. 

6. Cameron on Sure Start: "Yes, we back Sure Start. It's a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this."

The day before the general election, Cameron pledged to protect Sure Start, the network of children's centres founded by the last Labour government.

Asked for a guarantee that the centres would continue to receive funding, he replied: "Yes, we back Sure Start. It's a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this. He's the prime minister of this country but he's been scaring people about something that really matters."

In his 2009 Conservative conference speech, he said: "It’s also about emotional support, particularly in those fraught early years before children go to school. Labour understood this and we should acknowledge that. That’s why Sure Start will stay, and we’ll improve it."

Since then, 566 of the centres have been closed, with over half of those still open no longer providing any onsite childcare. 

7. On the Future Jobs Fund: "no plans to change"

In March 2010, Cameron praised the Future Jobs Fund as a "good scheme" and said the Conservatives had  "no plans to change existing Future Jobs Fund commitments". On 24 May 2010, the coalition announced its abolition (only for a subsequent Department for Work and Pensions study to show that it had been an unambiguous success, with a net benefit to the economy of £7,750 per participant) and replaced it with the ineffective Work Programme, later found to be "worse than doing nothing". 

8. Cameron on green taxes: "[they] need to go up"

While recently pledging to "roll-back" green taxes, Cameron took a very different line during his early hug-a husky phase. On 29 October 2006 he told the BBC's Politics Show: "I think green taxes as a whole need to go up". He also told Newsnight on 3 October: "We’ve said publicly, we’ve committed that we think green taxes should take a bigger share of overall taxes."

In a speech at the Tories' local election launch on 17 April 2008, he said: "Our message in this local election campaign is simple: vote blue, go green - and save money. It's been our campaign slogan for the last three elections. Why? Because it goes to the heart of what Conservatives believe. And because that's the kind of change people really want."

9. Osborne on bank bonuses: "totally unacceptable"

In an interview with the Guardian published on 14 August 2009, George Osborne said: "It is totally unacceptable for bank bonuses to be paid on the back of taxpayer guarantees. It must stop."

Not only did he fail to keep his pledge to ban bonuses at state-owned banks, he is now taking legal action against the EU commission over its plan to cap payments. 

10. And finally...Cameron on transparency in 2007

"It's clear to me that political leaders will have to learn to let go. Let go of the information that we've guarded so jealously." 

Speech at Google Zeitgeist Conference, 11 October 2007


Now listen to George discussing why the Conservatives have tried to erase these pledges on the NS Podcast:

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?