All credit to Jeremy Kite, Tory Leader of Dartford Council, for taking the time to give his side of the story after I picked on a story in the Evening Standard about a website he’d set up which purported to stop voters being ‘bothered’ by canvassers in the run to this weeks local elections.
In replying to my own post, Jeremy makes the following comment:
Now, I know a blog like yours owes no favours to a minor local politician but I do hope there’s a streak of fairness in there!!
Well, actually Jeremy, there is a streak of fairness here.
For starters you’ve been afforded an unfettered right of reply, and whether you believe me when I say this or not, I would be no less inclined to highlight a story like this had it been my own party (Labour) or any other party that appeared at fault.
Fairness also dictates that, following your remarks, I go back and re-examine the story as much as possible to see if there is anything more conclusive to be gleaned from it, either way. So, here, in full, is the text of the article that appeared on page 16 of the London Evening Standard on Friday.
TORIES ACCUSED OF CON WITH PHONEY WEBSITE
THE Conservatives have been caught apparently trying to make voters disclose their voting intentions to a phoney website.
Members of the public have been duped by a website called VoterChoice.co.uk that promises to stop them being bothered by canvassers.
But those who register are then asked to complete the process by revealing which party they intend to vote for in next Thursday’s local elections, an Evening Standard investigation found. The website resembles an independent free service to stop unwanted callers.
Only a careful study of the small print revealed that the glossy site was set up in the name of local Conservatives in Dartford, where crucial council elections are being fought. People who register are asked for personal details, including name, postal and email addresses. Then they are asked: “How will you vote on May 3” and told to choose from a list of parties fighting locally.
At the end they are given a “validation number” which purports to be unique. But the number is clearly meaningless because no matter how many times people log on using different names or computers, they get the same three digits — JD6.
Respondents can then download a Do Not Disturb poster to put in their window. The site implies that the organisers will contact political parties and ensure they do not bother any householder displaying the poster. It states: “We ask campaigners from ALL parties to respect your wishes and give your house a miss until polling day.”
Other parties said they had no record of ever being contacted in such a way.
Labour chairman Hazel Blears, who condemned the site as “the political online equivalent of the Nigerian letter scam”, today said the party was asking the Electoral Commission to investigate.
“ The Conservatives have t o answer three questions. Are they going to apologise to the voters they misled? Are they going to recycle all their election literature which has this on? How widespread is this — is this happening throughout the country?
“The Tories have resorted to a con trick to try to snatch people’s personal information. David Cameron needs to stop this grubby tactic.”
When challenged with the Standard’s findings, the Tories said they would scrap the website immediately. A spokesman said Mr Cameron’s officials had nothing to do with the site. The site no longer works.
And now, by way of comparison, here’s Jeremy’s own description of the site:
What we tried to do is reflect the fact that whilst some people like to see political types turn up on their doorstep three times a night and have a good old discussion about politics, there are some who just find it a real pain in the derriere to be disturbed just as they’re sitting down for tea or Eastenders. During the last election, I actually saw THREE separate parties canvassing the same street at once, knocking on the same doors just a couple of minutes apart. Have a pop at me if you like but I’m just trying to make things a bit more dignified for people who may not be as worked up about local elections as we are.
So, we set up a website, entirely openly, that lets people tell us they’d prefer that political canvassers didn’t disturb them. The website looks professional, not because we’ve modeled it on anything, but because I like good looking website. It’s got three pages.
t asks people to register and write three digits on the back page of our (very blue coloured) CONSERVATIVE manifesto which then turns into a DO NOT DISTURB notice which they display in their window. The only reason we ask residents to register and write the 3 digits is solely to stop us confusing genuine requests not to call with manifestos that have just been idly discarded in windows or visible in porches.
We’re not using, storing, processing or manipulating the data in any improper way. It arrives as an email and we make a note of the voting intention. That’s it. As Tim Worstall says, it’s EXACTLY what every party does when their on the doorstep. We don’t send emails, clever little tailored messages, texts or anything. Strange as it may seem, we just leave people alone.
As Hamer quite rightly says, the issue is whether we’ve been open about what we’ve done. Well, here’s the facts (missing from the Standard’s story, natch) …
1) the ONE and ONLY place we promoted the service was on ONE WHOLE PAGE of our 12page Conservative manifesto that – as you might expect from a manifesto – is plastered with Conservative logos. The DO NOT DISTURB notice voters display is actually the back page of our manifesto. I actually think it’s virtually impossible for ANYBODY (except Hazel Blears by the sound of it) to reach a conclusion that it was anything other than a Conservative initiative. We haven’t promoted the website in any way, other than in our huge, bright Tory blue manifesto. Honestly, it just defies belief to say we’ve set out to con anyone.
2) The FRONT PAGE of the website contains just TWO prominent links. One takes you to REGISTER, the other takes you to ‘IMPRINT’. The page it takes you to has no other content but the following words in normal sized type (none of your .5 point, grey on black!) in the middle of the page which says “Promoted by Keith Ferrin on behalf of Dartford Conservative Candidates, all at ….(then the Dartford Tory address)
As for Data Protection, well I’m told we are a registered data keeper in relation to our normal work as a local Conservative Association. We’ve not gathered any information that we don’t already store. Like every other party we have a electoral roll system that stores Voting intentions gathered from canvassing (doorstep or online)
We took the site down because, quite frankly, if Labour and the other parties aren’t going to take any notice of the request to leave people alone, there ain’t much point to it.
Okay, so there’s an obvious disparity in the two accounts. The Standard alleges that the site resembles an ‘independent free service’ and that one has to examine the small print to ascertain that the site was set up and run by the local Tory Party, while Jeremy provides a description of the site that, if 100% accurate, would leave the reader with little or no doubt as to who was behind the site.
And to complicate matters, the site was taken down straight away – and before it could be cached by Google – leaving yours truly with no means of verifying the accuracy of either account.
Mmm… how should one judge this situation?
On reflection, I think benefit of the doubt has to go to Jeremy on the basis the overall impression one gets from reading both accounts is that of a cock-up rather than a conspiracy – it just has that aura of being the kind of thing that ‘seemed a good idea at the time’ without having been thought through properly, rather than a deliberately contrived attempt to put one over on the voting public.
On that basis, a bit of adverse publicity and embarrassment is a fair outcome and it would be unduly harsh, and not a bit ridiculous, to take the matter as far as an official complaint to either the Standards Board or Information Commissioner unless something concrete emerged, by way of evidence, to cast serious doubts on the veracity of Jeremy’s account.
There is the germ of a good idea in all this, if approached in its proper context.
While I’m broadly in agreement with Alex’s point that it ill behoves any politician to actively encourage voters to disengage from the political process, there is something to be said for the possibility of a scheme for vulnerable people that would either permit them to opt-out of visits from canvassers or provide canvassers with properly accredited identification, provide, of course, that such a scheme has the full support of all local parties and operated through the proper channels – that would mean, in this case, via the local authority, which would have the added benefit of enforcing a strict political neutrality on the scheme as a whole.
It is worth stressing that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with political parties canvassing opinions and trying to identify supporters at election time, the only ‘fault’ in Jeremy’s scheme – as it was reported by the Evening Standard – was that the impression was given that the website failed to adequately disclose its links to a specific political party.
More than I cannot say, simply for lack of conclusive evidence one way or another – one salutary lesson for Jeremy in this is that the rapid removal of the site in question did create an initial impression that appeared validate the Evening Standard’s story while, at the same time, preventing bloggers, like myself, from checking the story for accuracy. Had I been able to access the site – and assuming that it was as described by Jeremy – I would have been just as inclined, if not more so, to shoot down the Standard for misrepresenting the content of the site as take a pot shot at him for producing it, were that still merited.
That, on the information to hand, is about as fair as its possible to get, I think, other to note that if Jeremy wishes to provide screen-shots of the site in question to back up his account, then I’m more than happy to append them to this post, and let people judge for themselves whether the Standard misrepresented the content/presentation of the site.