Small Business letter to the Telegraph; an attempt to defraud the electorate?
How the letter from small business owners to the Telegraph in support of the Tories fell apart
UPDATE 21:00 The list is back up. Scanning it for changes. It was down for a good twenty minutes, then briefly up then disappeared again and now it is back up. No possibility of mistaken http, as it was open on my desktop when it suddenly refreshed to this. What is going on?
UPDATE 20:30 on 28/4: The Telegraph has finally taken down the list of businesses which purported to have signed the letter. The link is now dead. The letter is still on their website, but the link to the signatories leads nowhere. No statement or apology has been issued as far as I am aware – from The Telegraph, CCHQ or Karen Brady.
The Charity Commission has become involved now, writing to charities it has identified from the list. A spokesperson for the Commission said:
“Signing a letter in support of a political party is not a legitimate activity for a charity… The commission will decide what further action, if any, is necessary once the charities have responded.”
UPDATE 17:15 on 28/4: It turns out that small business owners have been polled on a selection of subjects related to the election and the results make for very interesting reading – a neat way to close this thread.
You can see the full results of the research here – it involves a reasonably sized and representative sample of real owners of real small businesses, rather than party members, candidates, cronies, retirees, volunteers, barristas, funeral parlour consultants, people who never signed it, people who have asked to be taken out, dissolved and liquidated businesses, people who responded four times, ghosts and the neighbour’s dog.
As of the time of writing this, tha names of the two charities who have issued public statements demanding to be taken off the list, still appear on the list. I guess the Telegraph is past caring.
UPDATE 09:45 on 28/4: I have now received a reply from another charity I contacted, included in the letter, The Marsha Phoenix Memorial Trust. Here is the full statement from the Director of the trust, Rebecca Long:
“The Marsha Phoenix Memorial Trust is listed as one of the 5,000 businesses who are “signatories” to a letter supporting the conservative government published in today’s Telegraph Newspaper. I can categorically state that;
– We have been included on the list without our knowledge or consent and have contacted the conservative party and the Telegraph to demand that our organisation is removed from this list.
– The Trust is a very small charity and not a small business. It should not and should never appear on any list of political endorsements such as the one published in the Telegraph of apparent owners of small businesses. We do not and have not made any such political endorsement today or at any other time.
– No one at the charity has been authorised to sign such a document on our behalf, nor would they ever be.
– The named signatory is an employee of the Trust who has confirmed she has not been approached to be signatory to such a letter as a small business owner. We believe our and her inclusion on this list is some sort of error.”
UPDATE 07:30 on 28/4: A reader has done additional work on duplication. You can see it here.
UPDATE 20:55: Here is a list of dozens of businesses included as signatories which are dissolved or in liquidation, courtesy of @barnybug. A wonderful advertisement of the effectiveness of the policies which they, apparently, endorse.
UPDATE 20:00: I am beginning to have very serious doubts as to how many of even the legitimate businesses on the list actually signed anything. Aurum Solutions have issued a statement. Their sales director received an email from Brady “and recalls clicking on the link to find out more”. That’s it. He does not recall signing anything and denies strongly providing any information about the company. Could it be that this was merely an aggressive piece of spamming, where database entries referring to people and their workplace were signed up to this shambles at the mere click of the link?
UPDATE 17:15: Diverse Cymru have now demanded to be taken off the list.
There is a lot, so I’ll be brief.
Huge thanks to the many people on Twitter who sent me discrepancies all day, as they discovered them.
The day started with the Conservatives and the Prime Minister claiming a major victory.
Things soon began to unravel, when it emerged that this wasn’t the unsolicited, spontaneous combustion of love from small business to the Tories, which had been presented. In fact the Conservative Party had generated the letter and asked its members to sign it.
Things got much more tangled up when it was discovered that the background document, containing the names and signatures of the “small business owners” on the Telegraph website, still bore the metadata tags of Conservative Campaign Headquarters.
Say what you want, claimed a Tory councillor to me. The source is not important. What is important is the message.
Then, the list itself began to be scrutinised. Nobody has done a thorough review of the list yet. This is just a cursory scan which only reveals the tip of the iceberg. And a pretty substantial iceberg is seems to be.
First came the realisation that there were many duplications.
In fact there were so many that someone began to compile a full list. Here is what it contained last I saw it.
Shambles, you say? You can say that again. Oh, you did.
Strangely, the Telegraph took it upon itself to excise the list of duplications. No correction or apology. Just selective deletion. I find this incredibly sinister. Around 11am this duplication appeared.
By midday it was gone. The number 3241, simply omitted.
It was all fun and games, so far, but then it started to get serious. It turned out, some businesses had not signed the letter at all. Andrew Neil on the BBC’s Daily Politics programme, confronted David Gauke with the fact that simply looking over the first forty or so names of the list, he identified at least four occasions on which the signatory did not own or hold any shares in the company.
This began to expose the more significant problems with who signed the letter and on behalf of whom. I am no captain of industry but people who own a small business tend to describe themselves as the owner or the proprietor. Perhaps managing director or general secretary at a push. They do not tend to describe themselves – the selection below is, again, from a cursory glance – as “consultant” (what does a consultant do at a funeral parlour, exactly?), “admin”, “payroll”, “office manager”, “office assistant”, “executive assistant”, “medical director”, “academy director”, “Chief Inspiration Officer” (a what, now?), “site manager” of a regional dept, “sub postmaster” of a branch.
I am not suggesting that all those people don’t do valuable jobs, of course. But small business owners, they ain’t. And, however loose your criteria, you have to draw the line at people who are explicit about being retired, on one occasion, for 20 years.
All this makes one terribly suspicious as to whether the companies being signed up and splashed across the Telegraph even knew they were. And it should have made The Telegraph suspicious, when one of those small business owners described himself as a waiter.
Did Deane’s Restaurant Group know that they had been signed up as Conservative supporters on a national broadsheet by a barrista of one of their Belfast cafes? It seems not.
Aurum Solutions certainly did not know anything about it, as the real owner made quite clear. And the person who was meant to have signed it, even, had not.
David Gauke tried to make light of the discrepancies and suggested that the letter “was signed by people of no political background”. That is also, however, inaccurate. One of the entries of “small businesses” is actually the “Stanley Ward Conservative Club”.
I have spoken to at least two Conservative councillors who signed the letter. And remember Ben Manton? The barrista from Belfast who “misread the form”? Well, he is the Conservative parliamentary candidate for his constituency.
A cursory glance of the list reveals no less than seven Conservative parliamentary candidates: Selaine Saxby, Rebecca Pow, Chris Pearson, Iain McGill, Ben Manton, Nicola Wilson and Keith Dewhurst.
Keith Dewhurst, astonishingly, signs the letter as the Chair of a Welsh charity which helps people with disabilities. Since when does the chair of a charity “own” it as a “small business”? And what position does that leave a charity in, which is meant to be apolitical, both ethically and under the Charities Commission’s rules?
Again, a light search of the list yielded at least seven charities, which nobody owns and, certainly, for the political affiliations of which nobody can speak, including:
I have sought comment from them and have so far not had a response.
Certainly, questions will continue to be asked, especially about CCHQ’s use of this data. This was the disclaimer at the bottom of their letter.
The more one looks at this list, the more the conclusion that it is a deliberate attempt to deceive the electorate becomes inescapable. Certainly, it is an example of hugely shoddy journalism from The Telegraph – if I, as a novice and on my own, can find this stuff out in a few hours, they should have in ten minutes. Their headline still reads “huge boost for Cameron as 5000 small businesses…” BLAH BLAH, as they correct the list provided to them by CCHQ and published unchecked. Not a shred of integrity.
It is funny, but it is also tragic and sinister.