Bromley councillor who founded anti-Labour campaign group Working4UK has 'no plans' for its future
PUBLISHED: 07:00 10 February 2020
The councillor who founded a powerful anti-Labour campaign group which attracted national attention during December's general election has said he has "no plans" for the future of the organisation.
Bromley Council's Suraj Sharma, a Conservative councillor for Chislehurst who set up Working4UK ahead of the election, added that he has no firm plans on whether he'll utilise the platform again in the future.
Working4UK was one of several campaign groups which attracted national media attention throughout the election due to its prolific use of social media such as Facebook to pedal anti-Labour sentiment.
However Cllr Sharma, whose 9,000-plus Twitter followers make him one of the most prolific social media-using councillors in south-east London, denied claims the group shared misleading content, saying it instead "amplified" other voices against voting for Labour.
"I think this was the most crucial election in our lifetimes - the entire future of the country depended on that vote," he told the local democracy reporting service about the establishment of Working4UK.
He said he was "hearing daily from people in the construction and hospitality industry that they were really fearful of a Jeremy Corbyn government".
"The question I asked myself was what I could do outside of being a footsoldier handing out leaflets."
It led to him looking at online campaigns "similar to what the Labour group movement has done with Momentum".
He established Working4UK, which spent thousands of pounds on online advertisement savaging Labour and Jeremy Corbyn throughout the election.
"If it was just leaflets, no one would've cared, but because it was digital it got all of this attention," Cllr Sharma said of the media focus the campaign attracted, which included interview requests from BBC and Channel Four.
"With that type of (online) activity there's an undercurrent of feeling that there's something untoward."
While the Working4UK site identifies him as a Bromley councillor and businessman, it doesn't mention his Conservative affiliation.
However, he asserted: "It was as transparent as possible, I don't think there's anything people can point out and say it's not factual.
"We didn't manufacture any news. All we did was amplify articles by sources like the Times, Telegraph and Independent."
While acknowledging Working4UK "did really well in terms of reach across the country", he said he had no plans for the brand now.
"It was set up for the election and I don't know at this stage what'll happen with it, I haven't thought about it," he said.
Cllr Sharma said he seeded the capital for the establishment of the group himself, and received donations throughout the election.
He said he had "pretty much" spent the budget raised.
Working4UK was one of a number of online groups across the political spectrum which drew media scrutiny due to its social media activity, which raised questions over transparency related to political advertising on social media.
Aside from an intense online campaign, Working4UK also did traditional election activities, including the distribution of physical leaflets.
One of these leaflets saw a complaint levelled by a member of the public in Leeds Central, the constituency where Cllr Sharma's fellow Bromley Councillor Peter Fortune was running.
"Nowhere on the propaganda does it mention the Conservatives but it is clear that is who is behind this message," the Leeds resident wrote in her complaint to the Bromley and Chislehurt Labour party after a Working4Uk leaflet was hand delivered to her office in Horsforth, Leeds, during the election.
The resident said the leaflet, which contained information about "devastating tax rises", was "scaremongering at its finest… with the idea being that business owners hand these out to their employees to try and sway their vote".
In response, Cllr Fortune said: "I have no relationship with Working4UK and they had nothing to do with our campaign in Leeds Central whatsoever.
"All leaflets from our campaign would have carried the appropriate endorsement."
The ward member for Hayes and Coney Hall secured a 2.1 per cent swing to the Conservatives during the election, but was unable to topple long-standing MP Hilary Benn.
Cllr Fortune also explained why he ran in a seat roughly 200 miles north of his Bromley position.
"As Conservative candidate selected in an ultra safe Labour seat I did my best for the local residents and association," he said.
"However, I also worked to support colleagues in neighbouring seats and was delighted to see so many Conservative colleagues elected.
"Having previously lived and worked just up the road in Huddersfield, it was fantastic to spend some time in Leeds again."
While plans for Working4UK may have stagnated, Bromley Council's opposition leader Angela Wilkins expressed scepticism over the actions of the members.
"I must say, for Cllr Fortune to claim he wasn't aware of the nature of this third party campaign support stretches my imagination somewhat."
She added that claims contained in Working4UK leaflets sent to Leeds were "misleading at best".
"The worst part to me is that a Bromley councillor thinks it is acceptable to own a business which makes money from peddling such under-handed 'dirty tricks'," she said.