The Conservative Party operated a secret call center to canvas for candidates during the 2017 general election, breaking both data protection and election rules, according to an undercover investigation by Channel 4 News.
During the course of their investigation, an undercover reporter secured work at Blue Telecoms, a firm in Neath, South Wales.
In an area plagued by unemployment and low wages, the call center hired up to one hundred people on zero-hour contracts.
The investigation found the party used a market research firm to make thousands of cold calls to voters in marginal seats in the weeks before the election.
Callers were told to say they worked for a market research company called “Axe Research.” No such company is registered in England or Wales.
Call center employees working on behalf of the party used a script that appeared to canvass for support, rather than conduct neutral market research.
On the day of the election, call center employees contacted voters to promote individual candidates, which may be a breach of electoral law, it is claimed.
The broadcaster’s evidence suggests that on the day of the election, staff called voters for 10 marginal seats, including Bridgend, Gower, Clwyd South and Wrexham.
Undecided voters were told “the election result in your marginal constituency is going to be very close between Theresa May’s Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.”
They were then asked: “So, does knowing that you live in a marginal constituency that will determine who is prime minister for the Brexit negotiations, does that make you a lot more likely to vote for Theresa May’s Conservative candidate or a little more likely to vote for Theresa May’s Conservative candidate, or are you still unsure, or does it not make a difference?”
A week before the election, the same call center staff started saying they were calling on behalf of “Theresa May’s Conservatives.”
Undecided voters were fed key Tory campaign messages, including references to the Brexit negotiations and warnings about a hung parliament.
Under the Representation of the People Act, it is illegal to employ someone “for payment or promise of payment as a canvasser for the purpose of promoting or procuring a candidate’s election.”
Fake ‘market research company’?
At an earlier stage of the campaign, the call center staff said they were calling from a company called Axe Research, which does not appear to exist, with no live website, address, or phone number listed.
Under the Data Protection Act, callers must disclose who they are and how the data will be used.
Asked what Axe Research was, one supervisor told the undercover reporter: “It’s just the name we do these surveys under, basically. I did a Google search, nothing comes up. But as far as anyone’s concerned, yeah, we’re a legit independent market research company.”
Workers were repeatedly told not to disclose that they were working for Blue Telecoms.
A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner’s Office said they intended to ask the Tories about the “marketing campaigns conducted from this call center.”
It told Channel 4: “The Information Commissioner reminded campaigners from political parties of their obligations around direct marketing at the beginning of the election campaign. Where we find they haven’t followed the law we will act.”
The Conservative Party denies it broke any election laws, maintaining that the call center was simply conducting market research on its behalf and not canvassing for votes.
“Political parties of all colors pay for market research and direct marketing calls. All the scripts supplied by the party for these calls are compliant with data protection and information law,” a Tory spokesperson said.
Blue Telecoms is run by Sascha Lopez. He told the Guardian: “In relation to the Conservative Party project, I am unable to comment on the content of the scripts or calls to TPS [Telephone Preference Service] numbers, as the scripts and lists of who to call and when to call were given to us by Conservative campaign HQ in London and were not influenced by my team.”