Conservative election campaign manager Lynton Crosby arrives at Downing Street on October 16, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Without a record of delivery, the Tories are reliant on Crosby's campaign of division

The Conservatives' negative approach reveals a party bereft of ideas or empathy for working families.

As we approach an election that will determine the future of our country, David Cameron is leading a party of the past. A dark tide of negative campaigning heralds the return of nasty politics by the nasty party. The Tories are offering the British people nothing but a failing plan based on an outdated and damaging philosophy that national success depends on the success of a privileged few at the top with working families dragged along behind.

And it is now clear they are desperate to cling on to power by any means available. In recent days we have seen the extent to which the Tory campaign relies on a small pool of elite donors, having now taken £55m from hedge funds. We have seen concern grow over the intrusive proliferation of online attack adverts. We have seen the Tories embroiled in accusations that their staff have been plotting ways to smear Labour MPs. Theresa May has even been forced to urge her party to stay positive.

This is no surprise given Lynton Crosby is running the Tory campaign. And running it he is. Every strategic decision runs through the man who one cabinet minister joked "has replaced David Cameron as leader". Crosby campaigns are known for relying on personal attacks and a politics of fear. He has been described as "employing ruthless attack politics", deploying techniques that "dig out feelings of prejudice, fear, selfishness", and running campaigns described as "very nasty".

Take a few examples. Crosby directed the 2001 Australian federal election which was tainted by an incident in which the campaign falsely alleged that immigrants were throwing children overboard to gain access to Australia. The New Zealand 2005 election, which Crosby was involved in, came under fire for using a controversial billboard poster some called "racist". Crosby is currently involved in a court case in Australia involving accusations of push polling.

It is alarming, therefore, that the Conservatives seem to be running an off-the-shelf, identikit Crosby-Textor campaign. Recent Tory attack videos on Ed Miliband are almost identical to those used in the 2004 Liberal Party Campaign, on which Crosby worked as a consultant. The Tories are using the exact same design of graphics Crosby and Textor used for the National Party in the 2005 New Zealand election. "Competence vs Chaos" has become the central to the Tory campaign, but has apparently been directly lifted from language Mark Textor originally crafted for a New Zealand campaign. "Stay the course" is a common Cameron refrain, and this too was stolen from the September 2014 New Zealand election managed by Textor.

It is clear where the Tories' negative campaigning has its origins. From the "Go Home" vans to the personal attack videos with photoshopped images, from the scaremongering letters peddling falsehoods about Labour policy to Cameron's PR stunt in the home of people suspected of immigration offences, this is a campaign of smear and fear which is only going to descend further. When David Cameron talks about the choice at the next election remember the sight of Tory cabinet ministers lining up to back the Daily Mail in attacking Ed Miliband's late father.

Even Lord Gummer has said of the Tories' activity that it "seems to be far too close to American and Australian name calling, which is so unpleasant and so counterproductive." The Tories' plan has failed and so they are relying on negative campaigning. They cannot run on a record of delivery so they are running a campaign of division. They have raised election spending limits to give them maximum advantage with their elite donors. They changed voter registration rules, which has shut young people out of voting. And now they are relying on attempts to slur their opponents.

Whilst Labour of course warns against the dangers of five more years of the Tories, we are also putting forward a better plan for a better future. In recent days we have laid out our plan to build prosperity and raise living standards for all, announced our policy to protect education spending above Tory plans and revealed the growth in our small donations. We will not stoop to the Tories' depths. We will not fight the election by Aussie Rules. Our campaign is not based on big money or speaking over the heads of the British people. We are fighting this election on the ground with millions of doorstep conversations in which we will look voters in the eye and seek to rebuild trust in politics, town by town, street by street.

The Tories' Crosby campaign reveals a party bereft of ideas or empathy for working families. There is a choice at the next election: only Labour has a plan for a better future.

Lucy Powell is vice chair of Labour's general election campaign and shadow minister for the Cabinet Office.

Lucy Powell is MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education. 

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?