The Labour Party’s guidelines for barring members and supporters from voting in the leadership election, as obtained by The Huffington Post, speak volumes about the sorry state of its internal rights and democracy.
We learned that party workers have been trolling through the social media accounts of members and supporters in search of damning words and phrases to pass on to the ‘Compliance Unit’ for further investigation.
Moreover, members are being encouraged to send in the names of other members with ‘proof’, including “Facebook posts, photos or messages, tweets, texts, notices of polls or other expressions of written support for a group other than Labour, or opposed to Labour”.
A list of flagged words and phrases has been put together to weed out undesirables. These range from the unremarkable (e.g., ‘bitterite’, ‘backstabbing’, ‘war criminal’ and ‘plastic/red Tory’) to the hateful (e.g., ‘nignog’, ‘spaz’, ‘Zio’, ‘Paki’ and ‘faggot’).
The words ‘Blairite’, ‘Corbynite’ and ‘Trot’ are deemed to be abusive only when accompanied by ‘offensive’ words e.g. ‘Blairite scum’, ‘Corbynite vermin’, ‘Trot bastard’. The names ‘Leanne Wood’ (Plaid Cymru leader), ‘Natalie Bennett’ (former Green party leader) and ‘#Portland communications twat’ are also listed for scrutiny.
People who posted messages in support of another party and/or ‘threatening’ Labour MPs have been barred from membership. Examples include:
“What a disgraceful excuse for a Labour MP you are – you’re a sneering traitor.”
“If my local MP is anti-Corbyn I will vote Tory.”
“Momentum Scum should be expelled.”
“I would cut Tony Blair’s eyes out and set him on fire the murdering cunt…”
Channelling Big Brother?
This Orwellian strategy of proscribing ‘offensive’ language and messages and establishing teams of people to search for them in the social media accounts of members is deeply troubling. It will almost certainly have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, causing party members to self-edit, consciously or unconsciously, on social media and in meetings.
Information and ideas – and the right to express them – are essential for political debate and to ensure accountability and transparency in party governance.
In correspondence suspending members or rejecting membership, General Secretary Iain McNicol states: “The Labour Party should be the home of lively debate, of new ideas and of campaigns to change society. However, for fair debate to take place, people must be able to air their views in an atmosphere of respect.” But the right to free expression is meaningless if it only protects certain types of expression. Indeed, it can only be effective if it protects both popular and unpopular articulation, including speech that might shock others.
In any case, who sets the standards for ‘acceptable’ language and behaviour? On what basis are they chosen to do so? And who gave them permission to examine the social media accounts of members?
Double standards and punitive measures
It appears no one who supports Corbyn is safe from the NEC panel. Councillors and union members who’ve been Labour members for decades have been suspended, while new members have had their membership rescinded.
There was the unsettling suspension of Ronnie Draper, the general secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, which has nearly 20,000 members. Draper, a strong Corbyn supporter, was left “disgusted and in shock”. Sophie McKeand’s application was turned down because she tweeted support for Green Party policy back in May 2015, even though the tweet in question pre-dated her acceptance as a registered supporter in the 2015 leadership election. Catherine Starr was denied full membership for ‘inappropriate’ Facebook entries on a day when she posted about the Foo Fighters, cosmetics and veganism. Rosie Collington still doesn’t know why she was deemed unsuitable to be a member of the party and had her vote withdrawn.
One group of suspended members has written to The Guardian questioning the NEC’s tactics, methods and double standards. All plan to appeal.
The hypocrisy is clear to see
On creating an atmosphere of respect in political discourse, McNicol states: ‘People … shouldn’t be shouted down, they shouldn’t be intimidated, and they shouldn’t be abused, either in meetings or online.’ How ironic when one wing of the PLP has been doing nothing else but shouting down, bullying and abusing the Party Leader since the day he was elected.
The Party’s plotters appear to have disenfranchised tens of thousands of Corbyn supporters for using perfectly legitimate terminology such as ‘Tory Lite’, ‘backstabbers’ and ‘whingers’ in ‘lively political debate’ with some PLP members. Such terms are deemed ‘offensive’ but they are certainly no worse than Deputy Leader Tom Watson calling Momentum ‘a bit of a rabble’, MP Jess Phillips declaring she would knife Corbyn in his front not his back, Owen Smith calling Corbyn a ‘lunatic’ or party donor Michael Foster labelling Corbyn’s supporters ‘nazi stormtroopers’.
In fact some prominent Labour figures line up on Twitter to malign Corbyn and his supporters, e.g. Alastair Campbell, “Have you always been a twat or just since Corbyn?”; MP Tom Blenkinsop, “Corbyn and his acolytes spread lies about … our armed forces”; former special advisor John McTernan, “A traitor to our nation’s values will never ever be Prime Minister and is unfit to lead the Labour party” (there’s a whole Twitter account, @LabourAbuse, set up to highlight examples of this).
But none of them are being sanctioned, far from it. A triumphalist Cllr John Ferrett, who called Corbyn a ‘traitor’ and Corbyn supporters ‘lying Trots’ tweeted: “Finally received my leadership vote today – the 500-page dossier on me rightfully ignored – voted for @OwenSmith2016.’
After the purge
What will be the likely result of the purge – especially if Corbyn doesn’t win, as previous polls had suggested he would do by a large majority? There could be increased disenchantment with the political process among many who had become involved in politics for the first time as well as long-term Labour supporters who felt their views were finally being listened to. But, as Corbyn says, building the movement is not about any individual. Many who seek a democratic bottom-up alternative to the Tories will fight on.
Those who have been purged can be expected to appeal, and some will win. All of us must prepare for the skirmishes ahead including the PLP’s announced intention to take back the power to select members of the Shadow Cabinet.