KINGSTON North’s new MP Sarah Olney has denounced claims that her election was assisted by party propaganda disguised as an independent local newspaper delivered to unsuspecting voters.
The so-called newspaper was put through letterboxes in the Richmond and Kingston North constituency on polling day, and has been criticised by defeated Labour candidate Christian Wolmar and by political gadfly “Guido Fawkes”.
Liberal Democrat Olney told the Kingston Courier: “There’s nothing underhand or ‘dirty tricks’ about what we did. Our opponents didn’t like it because it was successful.”
The fake newspaper – titled “The Richmond and Kingston Gazette” – carried the legally-required disclaimers stating that it was campaign literature relating to the November 2016 by-election, but not where they could be seen immediately by a reader.
The polling day edition of the Gazette was the culmination of a month-long publicity campaign, with earlier editions of the fake newspaper being hand-delivered across the constituency by local party activists. Richmond Liberal Democrat Paul Walter described how he had spent all morning on 24 November — one week before the election — “delivering Gazette newspapers” in New Malden before visiting Kingston Lib Dems.
Political blogger Paul Staines, who goes under the pseudonym Guido Fawkes, referred to the Liberal Democrats as “some of the dirtiest campaigners around.” His blog described the fake newspaper as “more convincing than the usual literature used by political parties, and it even goes as far as including reports from ‘a senior Gazette reporter’ who does not exist. All with the aim of hoodwinking voters.”
After the result had been declared, Labour candidate Christian Wolmar said: “The slipperiness of the Lib Dems did surprise me… They “leaked” their canvass returns to the Guardian which uncritically published them. The Lib Dems then produced a newspaper look-alike revealing that media reports showed Labour ‘just behind in the polls’.”
Wolmar was referring to a story published by The Guardian on Wednesday 30 November 2016, which stated: “The Liberal Democrat party’s internal data, seen by the Guardian, predicts Sarah Olney will win 47.2% of the vote on Thursday. Labour’s Christian Wolmar will trail on just 6.2%, the party’s modelling claims.”
Wolmar called the Lib Dem tactic: “Clever stuff, and it worked. My support waned at the end, as testified by the election day knock up which found many previous Labour promises deciding to opt for the Lib Dems to get rid of Zac Goldsmith.”
In the event, Wolmar polled fewer votes than there are local Labour Party members in the constituency of Richmond and Kingston North, indicating that solid Labour voters did indeed switch sides to block Goldsmith’s re-election. There is no suggestion that Mr Wolmar was deprived of victory due to any manipulation of voters’ intentions.
Ms Olney dismissed the criticisms from Wolmar and Staines, saying: “We shared our (highly accurate, as it turned out) canvass returns with the Guardian, and included the Guardian’s headlines in a leaflet distributed to voters. There’s nothing underhand or ‘dirty tricks’ about that. Our opponents didn’t like it because it was successful.”