Predictably, the process of verifying those who have signed up to vote in the Labour leadership election has fallen into something approaching chaos. Today’s Guardian carries letters from long-term Labour supporters and activists who have been denied votes. Far more than the removal of high-profile comedians and public political figures, this begs huge questions over the probity and competence with which the scrutiny has been carried out.
Some pointers have surfaced – social media are apparently being scrutinised, and apparently canvass records are being used in some cases. In the first case, although one could plausibly argue that social media profiles are public and ripe for scrutiny, jurist Paul Bernal has argued in a finely-nuanced blog post that privacy just isn’t that simple an issue – and reminds a Twitter and Facebook obsessed world that many people just don’t use them.
Second, canvass returns. Having pounded the streets as a Labour local government candidate in Brighton, I can vouch that canvass returns often just aren’t that accurate – the records are only as good as your least competent canvasser. Moreover, it seems difficult to square their use with the first principle of data protection; that people must be told what their data is being used for. Is Labour really confident that use of canvass returns meets those criteria? I’d have thought this is a massively grey area and – even if it won – a legal challenge could significantly damage Labour’s reputation further.
Third, what exactly does “supporting the aims and objects of the Labour Party” mean? I was a Labour candidate in a Green-held ward in Brighton Pavilion, and I encountered plenty of people who described themselves as natural Labour supporters but who voted Green – in many cases splitting their votes between Caroline Lucas in the General Election and the Labour local candidates being elected on the same day. While I’d argue – and did argue – that voting Green was not the best way for those voters to promote the Labour values that they professed to support, I find it hard to accept that their position was not sincere. Labour has lost millions of supporters since 2005, many to other parties, many to no party at all; and organisational dirigisme in the face of real concerns, and at a time of fluid party loyalties on the left, does not help us bring them back.
Which brings us to the fourth point – these are the people that we need to win over to achieve a Labour victory. Whether they are Green voters in Brighton or UKIP voters in working-class towns, or the mythical Tory voters of middle England, it seems absolutely self-defeating to exclude people who may be on the cusp of returning to Labour – who appear to be responding to one or other of the leadership candidates – on the basis of canvass returns from an election that Labour lost, or on the basis of old social media comments. The unexpected election of a majority Tory government has changed the game since the election; people are entitled to second thoughts. It seems particularly obtuse to block people at a time when the political class as a whole is held in such low esteem; it’s behaviour that only reinforces stereotypes about self-seeking politicians.
The problem, of course, lies in the system. There seems to be little evidence that those who created the current voting system thought through the implications – least of all of what would happen if a candidate from outside the Party mainstream gathered the kind of momentum that Jeremy Corbyn has done. The result looks dangerously like panic.
And there is a huge irony in all this that the rationale behind this system was to weaken the influence of the Unions – and hence the Left. Perhaps the most important message is to be careful what you wish for.