- Labour MP Ben Bradshaw wants a judge-led inquiry into whether Russia meddled in Brexit and the 2017 general election. Bradshaw said the government’s approach to the question of Russian interference has been “stonewalling and obfuscation.” He and other MPs plan to lobby Prime Minister Theresa May for an investigation over the coming months.
LONDON – A veteran Labour MP has demanded that the government open a judge-led inquiry into the possibility that Russia interfered in the EU referendum last year.
Ben Bradshaw, who was culture secretary in Gordon Brown’s Labour government and campaigned to remain in Europe, said there is mounting evidence that Vladimir Putin’s regime has “actively and deliberately” attempted to subvert democratic votes around the world.
He urged the UK government to treat the issue as seriously as the US, where former FBI director Robert Mueller is investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections and whether President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with the Kremlin.
Speaking to Business Insider, Bradshaw said:
“We need the government to wake up to this. All we have had, up to this point, is stonewalling and obfuscation. There now needs to be a full government investigation into all aspects of [Russian] subversion.
“It should include concerns about the hybrid social media warfare, including paid-for Facebook adverts and fake Twitter accounts used as bots, as well as an investigation into impermissible donations.”
Last week, Bradshaw said specific attention should be paid to the “dark money” used to fund the Leave.EU campaign. Leave.EU and other anti-EU ventures were financed to the tune of £9 million ($11 million) by UKIP donor Aaron Banks. Leave.EU did not immediately respond to BI’s request for comment.
Bradshaw said any government investigation should be led by an independent judge, who must have the power to subpoena documents. The Labour for Exeter added that he and other MPs plan to actively lobby the government to open the inquiry over the coming months.
Putting pressure on Theresa May
“We’re applying pressure all the time,” said Bradshaw, pointing to a question he put to Prime Minister Theresa May earlier this week. On Monday, Bradshaw asked if Mueller has requested help from Britain with his investigation. May did not address the question directly.
Labour MP Barry Sheerman also asked whether the Kremlin was discussed at last week’s European Council meeting, given how “pleased the Russians are about Brexit and instability across Europe.”
May said Russia was not discussed last week, but admitted that the country has been culpable of democratic interference. “The Russians have indulged in disruptive activity, not just the illegal annexation of Crimea, but also the actions it has taken to interfere in democratic elections in a number of countries. This is a subject that I am sure the Council will return to,” the prime minister said.
Bradshaw’s concerns were also put to the PM’s spokesman this week, who said the “UK democratic system is amongst one of the most secure in the world and will continue to be so,” according to Reuters.
Bradshaw said the government’s reluctance engage with the issue comes back to two reasons: “It doesn’t want to undermine the referendum result or embarrass Donald Trump and jeopardise a post-Brexit trade deal.”
MPs demand evidence from Facebook
He was, however, encouraged to see that the Culture, Media, and Sport Committee wrote to Facebook this week demanding it reveals any evidence it holds that Russia tried to influence the Brexit vote and this year’s election. Bradshaw expects the Intelligence and Security Committee and National Security Strategy Committee to ask similar questions.
Away from Facebook, the University of Oxford’s Oxford Internet Institute analysed 1.5 million tweets from highly automated accounts, or bots, over a week in June 2016 in the run-up to the EU referendum. It found 54% were pro-Leave, while 20% were pro-Remain. The rest were neutral.
Samuel Woolley, who helped oversee the research, said the accounts were “megaphoning” anti-EU content. He told BI that it was difficult to assess who was behind the automated accounts, but admitted that Russia has got form in using Twitter bots to manipulate public opinion.
“Russia has an incredibly sophisticated propaganda apparatus and a lot of the tactics in bot deployment that we see worldwide have come from Russia,” he said.