Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson has urged the UK government to confirm whether or not the National Crime Agency was investigating alleged Russian interference in Britain's electoral process, echoing efforts made by US special counsellor Robert Mueller, who is currently looking into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections.
The demands come after a surprise announcement to Byline Festival attendees on Saturday, demanding that the UK government look into possible ties between the "Russian state" and pro-Brexit Leave.EU campaigners.
"Today I called on the government to confirm the National Crime Agency is investigating Russian links to http://Leave.EU," Watson announced. "We need a public inquiry. It is time the British people were told whether the EU referendum result was stolen by the Russian state."
Today I called on the government to confirm the National Crime Agency is investigating Russian links to https://t.co/B6veD65mWb. If not, we need a public inquiry. It is time the British people were told whether the EU referendum result was stolen by the Russian state. #BylineFest pic.twitter.com/WkhhQygmOQ— Tom Watson (@tom_watson) August 25, 2018
In his speech, Watson referenced questions posed by London Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr during an Electoral Commission Q&A.
Watson stated that Cadwalladr asked him why the British people did not know if the Russian state interfered in the 2016 European Union membership referendum. "Why are our politicians not doing anything about it," he said, quoting the journalist.
Watson then criticized the UK Electoral Commission, asserting that the government body "was not designed to look into other states' interfering in [the UK's] democracy."
He also demanded that the public had the right to know if the NCA was investigating Russian collusion allegations, and if "the referendum was stolen by the Russian state or not."
"Jeremy has highlighted the problem of there being too many statutory bodies and this is what we've seen in the referendum," he said as quoted by the London Guardian. "We know there were breaches of data laws and election laws and even possible state interference."
Fellow parliamentarians rushed to congratulate Watson on his statements.
"Well done @tom_watson — great to have the Labour front bench weighing in support of our campaign for the truth," Labour MP for Exeter Ben Bradshaw tweeted in response.
Tom Watson's comments follow those made by the UK Electoral Commission, who concluded in a May 11 statement that Leave.EU failed to declare around £70,000 in its expenses.
It also accused the group of "exceeding the spending limit for non-party registered campaigners by at least 10%," adding that expenses may have been "considerably higher than that."
"These are serious offences. The level of fine we have imposed has been constrained by the cap on the Commission's fines," the statement reads.
However, the Electoral Commission did not imply the Russian state, but instead singled out US campaign strategy firm Goddard Gunster of the notorious Cambridge Analytical scandal, stating that their services "were not included in the spending return, despite a proportion of them having been used during Leave.EU's referendum campaign."
A letter addressed to Leave.EU co-founder Aaron Banks predated the May 11 statement and contradicts Tom Watson's criticisms of the body. "The Electoral Commission is an independent regulator of political finance in the UK," the letter reads.
"The rules we enforce were put in place by Parliament to ensure transparency and public confidence in our democratic processes," Bob Posner, Electoral Commission Director of Political Finance and Regulation and Legal Counsel mentioned.
The UK House of Commons published research on ties between Leave.EU and Cambridge Analytica on April 16, which compared scapegoating techniques used by the Nazis against Jews to those by Leave.EU against immigrants. The investigation accuses Leave.EU of copying the strategy that Cambridge Analytica had set for the campaign.
Watson's calls for an investigation also follow a July 13 meeting between Ian Lucas MP and Senators from Intelligence Committee for Atlantic Council.
The meeting, entitled "Pulling at the Strings: The Kremlin's Interference in Elections," took place July 16 and proposed ways to blame the Russian state by tapping into relationships with European parliamentarians, Eastern partnership countries, and policy, media, and governmental figureheads.
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee department chair Damian Collins MP also attended the event.
"Following Kremlin meddling in several elections, Western governments, civil society, and the private sector must take steps to build resilience and resistance against disinformation campaigns and interference," the meeting announcement read.
The Byline Festival took place August 24-27 at Pippingford Park in Nutley, East Sussex in partnership with London-based Frontline Club, a socializing club for independent and freelance journalists. The event, inaugurated on June 2 2017, annually showcases free speech journalists, activists and musicians.
Notable headliners included anti-Kremlin punk rock outfit Pussy Riot, multi-instrumentalist Damon Michael Gough of Badly Drawn Boy, and former Monty Python star and comedian John Cleese, among many others.