A member of Norman Lamb’s Lib Dem leadership campaign has admitted running a survey asking about what he considered were rival candidate Tim Farron’s illiberal views on abortion and gay rights, but strongly denied that amounted to negative push polling.
Mark Gettleson, who has resigned his volunteer position, has confirmed that he was responsible for the survey, which is now the subject of an internal inquiry by the Lib Dems.
The row erupted after Farron’s campaign team learned on Friday that some party members had been asked questions by an external survey company about some of his positions that have attracted criticism.
Lamb, who was not aware of the survey questions, reacted by suspending two members of his campaign team, one of whom is Gettleson.
“I will not tolerate breaches such as this on my campaign,” Lamb said at the weekend. My campaign manager immediately reported the issue to the acting returning officer, Tim Gordon. I took immediate action to suspend the two individuals from further involvement in the campaign.
“I am proud that until now this has been a positive campaign. I believe it is essential to get back to debating the future and my vision for the party. My team are under clear instructions that negative campaigning will not be tolerated.”
Senior party officials are also meeting on Monday morning to discuss whether to refer the matter to the information commissioner over concerns data protection laws were breached when members were contacted by the third party.
However, Gettleson, a strategic communications professional, released an explanation on Sunday saying the data was encrypted and stored securely, as well as citing previous Lib Dem campaigns that use third parties to conduct polling and send out direct mail.
“The survey we conducted was not a ‘push poll’,” he said. “A push poll is an unethical campaign activity, where an untrue or unverified statement is pushed towards a wide audience with the sole aim of distorting their views.”
Gettleson said the survey was in fact undertaken to gauge the views of members about issues on which Lamb and Farron have made public statements, not to influence members about those views. He said only 627 people were contacted and asked nine questions, which was not enough to form part of a voter persuasion campaign.
“There is an unusual culture within the Liberal Democrats that shuns internal scrutiny of our potential leaders and where any criticism resulting from that scrutiny is labelled as ‘negative campaigning’,” he said. “I do not share this view. I think that as long as the questions asked and points made are fair and factual, then Liberal Democrat members deserve to know the full facts about their leadership
candidates – and they should know them before they vote, not after.
“This includes knowing what I regard to be Tim Farron’s illiberal record on abortion and gay rights. I wrote questions about these issues to see if there was empirical evidence that other members also share that view – a view that has been unquestionably confirmed by the poll’s results.”
Gettleson said some of the reports about the survey and his role in it have been “misleading and factually incorrect”. He added that whilst he believes it was within the appropriate boundaries of campaigning and research, he regretted any offence that has been caused to Farron and any harm done to Lamb’s campaign.
Farron has accepted Lamb’s apology and called for the party to move on instead of dwelling on the allegations. “This leadership election is about ideas, policies & principles. I’ve accepted @normanlamb’s apology and we must move on. We are one family,” he tweeted.
Ballot papers will soon be sent out to the party’s 60,000 members, and the result is due to be announced on 16 July.
A Liberal Democrat representative said: “We have been made aware of an alleged breach of party rules and are looking into the issue as a matter of urgency.”
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