SNP admits contacting Cambridge Analytica over election campaign

Severin Carrell Scotland editor
The SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon (centre), with cabinet members in April 2016 during the Holyrood election campaign. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The Scottish National party has admitted it sought help for its election campaigning from Cambridge Analytica, after it came under mounting pressure to disclose its dealings with the company.

The SNP released what it said was all of its correspondence with the controversial data firm on Wednesday night as it attempted to defuse a major row over these contacts, which it had not disclosed toits MPs, the media and its supporters.

The emails show the SNP made the first approach to Cambridge Analytica and suggest the party wanted help fighting the Holyrood elections in May 2016, when it faced losing seats to the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems.

The contact was initiated by Christian Jones, the SNP’s head of voter identification and strategy. He said he was “keen to have a chat” and later emails show the SNP was interested in its “high-level offerings”.

The documents back up Cambridge Analytica’s statement two days ago that it had numerous contacts with the SNP in early 2016. “Our discussions were about providing the party with a platform to help manage their data,” the firm said.

Mike Russell, the SNP’s Scottish Brexit minister, accused the firm of being “lying cowboys” on BBC Radio Scotland on Wednesday morning.

In fact, the SNP documents confirm the company’s statements that there were repeated email exchanges, a meeting in London, and a conference call, which included the SNP’s party solicitor, Scott Martin, who was responsible for electoral data compliance, and a follow-up call.

The party argued the documentation, which began when the SNP sought out Cambridge Analytica in February 2016, shed light on the firm’s relationship with another company called SCL Elections, which has links to the Conservative party.

It has sent to the documents to the UK information commissioner, who has launched a major investigation into the firm’s operations, because the papers appear to challenge Cambridge Analytica’s claim that it and SCL Elections operated separately.

The SNP said its suspicions began after Cambridge Analytica sent it a non-disclosure agreement from SCL Elections, which the party refused to sign.

One email on 15 February 2016 from a Cambridge Analytica executive, Livia Krisandova, who used an SCL email address, said Cambridge Analytica was the “US operating affiliate of SCL Group”.

Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, who had been kept in the dark about these contacts even while his MPs were attacking the Tories about the firm, said other parties should release all their correspondence in the interests of transparency.

“To confirm again, the SNP has never worked with Cambridge Analytica, used any of its services or paid them a single penny,” he said.

“However, having reviewed the limited information we had from CA we think even our brief experience with the firm will be of interest to the information commissioner and her investigation into data analytics.”

The SNP’s disclosures came a week after a former Cambridge Analytica executive told one of the party’s MPs during an evidence session at the Commons culture committee the SNP had had numerous contacts with the company in 2016.

Nicola Sturgeon, the party’s leader, was challenged on those contacts at first minister’s questions last Thursday, where she insisted they were restricted to one meeting in London on which the SNP never followed up, involving an external consultant.

The party refused to disclose any further details or the topics under discussion, until the news website CommonSpace revealed earlier this week that the SNP’s former head of digital strategy, Kirk Torrance, had taken the meeting in London.

Torrance insisted he had advised the SNP never to work with the firm as they were “snake-oil-selling cowboys”. The SNP emails show Jones was also to attend the meeting in London, but had to cancel at short notice.

According to the paperwork released by the SNP, several follow-up emails from Cambridge Analytica in February, March and May went unanswered. The SNP said: “We didn’t want to tell them what we really thought, so we let them down gently – by ignoring their emails.”