We need to destroy the election-rigging industry before it destroys us

The private secret state will fight to keep Labour out of office and destabilise it if it wins. 

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Fascism, wrote the French politician Aimé Césaire, was basically colonialism applied to Europe. Techniques perfected in hot climates against black bodies were applied to the Jews, Slavs, communists and Gypsies of Europe.

On the same basis, what Cambridge Analytica did to help swing the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election is simply the application of dirty tricks learned and routinely used to rig elections in the emerging world.

Cambridge Analytica reportedly hit its clients’ rival with a fake bribe sting during the 2010 St Kitts & Nevis election; it is accused of using Israeli hackers to access the emails of a rival to Goodluck Jonathan, as he ran for the presidency of Nigeria in 2015. But that’s just the potentially illegal stuff.

In Latvia, by its own admission, parent company SCL stoked up ethnic tension against the country’s Russian minority, ensuring this “crucial wedge issue” helped their candidate gain votes. In Nigeria they put a match to the tinder of ethnic conflict by using “local religious figures” to stage anti-election rallies in opposition strongholds. In Trinidad they plastered the walls with fake graffiti, so that their clients’ message would appear to have youth support.

Politicians in flawed democracies are more than capable of dreaming up dirty tricks like these, but SCL brought a unique mixture of polling, research, the expertise of former intelligence officers and – as we now know – an under-the-counter service involving hacking, stings, honey traps and a nest of fake companies to avoid detection.

While huge angst is being generated, rightly, by the data breaches and opaque algorithmic control exerted by Facebook, it is this nexus of private intelligence, hacking and “black ops” capabilities that should be ringing political alarm bells.

For, whether or not it decisively influenced the outcome of two key US and British votes, it is beyond doubt that the votes were influenced, and that in each case the firms’ executives had skin in the game.

Cambridge Analytica’s bosses – Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon – were key Trump supporters. SCL’s board is stuffed full of Conservative politicians and former British military and intelligence operatives, some of whom are publicly aligned with the Vote Leave campaign.

Disturbingly, both CA and SCL have high-level contracts with governments, giving them access to secret intelligence both in the US and the UK. SCL is on List X, which allows it to hold British secret intelligence at its facilities.

It now appears that techniques they used in Ukraine and Eastern Europe to counteract Russian influence, and against Islamist terrorism in the Middle East, were then used to influence elections in the heart of Western democracy itself.

Let’s be clear about what we’re facing. A mixture of free market dogmatism plus constraints imposed by the rule of law has led, over the past decades, to the creation of an alternative, private, secret state.

When it was only focused on the enemies and rivals of the West, or hapless politicians in the global south, nobody minded. Now it is being used as a weapon to tear apart democracy in Britain and the US we care - and rightly so.

The revelations about SCL/CA corroborate long-held suspicions about how this private secret state operates. What can be done constitutionally is done by state-paid operatives, under rules and accountability. What needs to be done outside the law is done by hackers, often in either Israel or Eastern Europe; or by ex-spies enjoying higher pay and complete freedom to bug, burgle, plant fake graffiti, stir up ethnic tension - and who knows what else?

The obvious questions around the Brexit referendum are clear: where did the DUP’s mystery £425,000 donation come from? Was BeLeave really an offshoot of, and conduit for, the Vote Leave campaign – and if so, did its alleged breach of electoral law skew the result? What was the effect of Cambridge Analytica’s offshoot AggregateIQ working for Vote Leave while CA itself worked for the rival campaign Leave.EU?

But the unknowables are more troubling. If there is a firm embedded at the heart of the British establishment, drawing on hackers and what in le Carré novels are called “scalp hunters” to systematically flout the law, can anyone doubt that it would have used its full suite of techniques to help influence in the Brexit campaign?

I don’t think there is enough evidence today to justify re-running the Brexit referendum. But if SCL’s client list were made public, as well as a list of all the front companies it has set up in the past four years, it might make interesting reading.

For in that time we’ve seen the Scottish referendum, the Brexit vote, two general elections and – let it be noted – two Labour leadership contests. In each one of them, like many people, I had the feeling that something was not quite right; that things were happening that felt orchestrated by forces you could not see; that forces in excess of the network effect and right-wing media propaganda were changing attitudes and bringing issues to the fore, just as SCL advertises itself as doing in Latvia and Trinidad.

We are not helpless in the face of the private secret state. We can do stuff. For one thing, there is company law: it is not legal to run a company whose aims and objectives are to break the law; it is also not legitimate for government to employ contractors who specialise in hiding the beneficial ownership of companies.

The Ministry of Defence should cancel all contracts and access with SCL today. And this week’s revelations require emergency legislation – to outlaw the operations on British soil of companies like CA/SCL. We may not be able to stop the global trade in private hacking, stings and honeytraps, but we can make it illegal to operate out of the UK.

And let’s state the bleedin’ obvious. Soon Britain will hold a general election in which Jeremy Corbyn could become prime minister. Anybody who thinks SCL/CA would have no skin in that game is naive.

The private secret state will be the sworn enemy of a radical Labour government; both for reasons of self-interest and ideology. There are plenty of prospective foreign clients who would pay good money to keep Corbyn’s Labour Party out of office and to destabilise it if it won. We need to destroy the election-rigging industry before it destroys us.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.