The rearguard Remain lobby, which has far from given up on its ambition to reverse the Brexit vote, has put much store in the alleged electoral malpractice of Aaron Banks and his Leave.EU campaign, as well as the actions of the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica. Along the way it has found the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) eager to investigate.
There has, however, been a drawback to this strategy: it has invited examination of the Remain campaign’s own spending and use of personal data. Sure enough, a report published by the ICO today offers some possible dynamite. It reads:
'During the course of our investigation, we obtained information that the Liberal Democrats had sold the personal data of its party members to BSiE [Britain Stronger in Europe] for approximately £100,000.
In June and July 2018, we served information notices on Open Britain, the successor organisation to BSiE, and the Liberal Democrats, under the DPA1998, to investigate these issues.'
For their part, the Lib Dems and Open Britain have denied that the Lib Dems sold its own members’ personal data. Rather they contend that what the Lib Dems flogged to the In Campaign was 'Electoral Register Information' – data which it could have sourced directly from the open access electoral register. The Lib Dems say that what they provided was a ‘simple enhancement’ of the electoral roll data, such as adding telephone numbers where it had them. It also told the ICO that it had worked with Britain Stronger in Europe to model voting intentions.
That is a pretty thin distinction – if the Lib Dems were ‘enhancing’ electoral roll data with telephone numbers, surely that would amount to the sale of its members’ data. Where else would it have obtained the telephone numbers other than via their membership of the Lib Dems?
The ICO is not convinced of the Lib Dems’ innocence, either. It states in its report, in a move which could derail efforts by the Remain campaign to seize the moral high ground on issues of data and spending: 'We are still looking at how the Remain side of the referendum campaign handled personal data, including the electoral roll, and will be considering whether there are any breaches of data protection or electoral law requiring further action.'
The Lib Dems could do with undertaking a slightly different investigation of their own. They might ask: was it really so wise of us to throw our weight behind the Remain campaign when – according to a YouGov analysis of the referendum vote - 32 per cent of those who voted for us in 2015 went on to vote Leave in the 2016 referendum? The Lib Dems’ pretty miserable performance in 2017 provides some sort of answer. While the Conservatives are often portrayed as a party split down the middle by attitudes towards the EU, pretty much the same is true of the Lib Dems – and Labour. While the Conservative 2015 vote was 39 per cent Remain and 61 per cent Leave, the Lib Dems were not much less divided on 68 per cent Remain and 32 per cent Leave. Similarly, Labour was 65 per cent Remain and 35 per cent Leave.
When the Lib Dems’ erstwhile voters discover that the party has been a bit free with their personal data one wonders if they are going to be even less impressed.