Tories’ levelling up ‘propaganda’ ads spark fury among opposition

Adverts appearing in newspapers, magazines, on billboards and on social media promoting the government’s so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda, particularly in areas where Conservatives are hoping to make gains on council seats in the May local elections, have been disparaged, not only as propaganda, but propaganda funded by taxpayers’ money.

Targeting marginal councils and seats

The targeted ads have been circulated in areas with tight councils, including Wolverhampton, Derby, Southend, Great Yarmouth, and Walsall, as well as seats that were marginal in the general election, including Stoke-on-Trent, Blyth Valley and Darlington.

Reports also refer to ‘levelling up’ promotional content being featured on digital billboards in town centres and on radio adverts.

Facebook is being used as a key portal for the alleged propaganda, with adverts bragging levelling up claims in towns and cities up and down the country. In Southend, for example, which is run by a council with no overall control, an advert on Facebook reads: “Levelling up means: a £12m institute of tech to develop the skills of the future in Southend.”

According to the Facebook ad library, the advert had has around 400,000 to 450,000 page impressions and is targeted at more than 1 million people.

Government refuses to say how much is being spent

When quizzed about how much was being spent on the adverts, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, refused to say how much was being spent on the campaigns.

The launch of the spending campaign falls outside the official pre-election period, known previously as ‘purdah’, in which restrictions of communications activity are put in place.

The timing of the campaign has led to accusations that the government is using public money for political gain.

The ads have infuriated the opposition, who are rendered virtually powerless due to the lack of regulation involving election advertising prior to the ‘purdah’ period.

Responding to an article in the Essex Echo, which informs readers that it is part of a paid-for partnership with the UK government, centred on what is described as a ”radical new regeneration programme which is already benefitting community projects in your area,” Pat McFadden, Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East and shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, posed the question:

“Department for Levelling Up refusing to say how much they are spending on this paid advertising in local papers, billboards and online. What have they got to hide?”

The tweet sparked an angry reaction, with people responding that “taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for Tory propaganda” and that “Tories are spending more money on telling us about levelling up than they are on actual levelling up.”

Another questioned the legality of the article, tweeting: “Isn’t that political advertising? Are they allowed to do that?”

‘Serious questions to answer’

Lisa Nandy, shadow levelling up secretary, said: “There are serious questions to answer when ministers who can’t find any new funding for their flagship levelling up policy can suddenly find bags of public money for Conservative propaganda ahead of the local elections.”

Responding to the accusations, a government spokesperson said: These claims are untrue. Our levelling up campaign is running across the UK with areas chosen to portray real-life examples of levelling up already happening in towns and cities across the country, backed by more than £5bn in funding.

“Our landmark levelling up white paper sets out a blueprint for how we will reverse this country’s geographical inequalities, spread opportunity and transform communities throughout the whole country.”

Calls for government to rethink ‘unambitious’ levelling up agenda

The controversy surrounding the ‘propagandistic’ levelling up ads and where the funding is coming from, comes amid calls for the government to rethink its “unambitious” levelling up plan. The Institute for Government, an independent think tank which which aims to improve government effectiveness through research and analysis, has warned that Boris Johnson will fail to level up the country as the government’s 12 missions for levelling up lack detail and are “unambitious.”

The ads, by contrast, radiate ambition and aspiration, such as the Essex Echo article which speaks of a “radical regeneration programme.”

This is not the first time the Tories have been associated with misleading, ‘propagandistic’ ads.

An investigation which analysed every ad promoted by the UK’s three main political parties on Facebook prior to the general election in 2019, found that 88% of the ads paid for by the Conservative Party on Facebook contained misleading claims. Out of 6,749 ads paid for by the Tories in a four-day period, over 5,000 contained the claim that the party will build ‘40 new hospitals’, either in the caption, image or link.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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Tories’ levelling up ‘propaganda’ ads spark fury among opposition