Rejected for the crime of retweeting Ken Loach, or for failing to attend a local branch barbecue. Rejected, most often, for no stated cause, but rather an unspecified failure to live up to the pledge.
We have reason to believe that you do not support the aims and values of the Labour Party or you are a supporter of an organisation opposed to the Labour Party and therefore we are rejecting your application.
This has been happening in the UK over the last week, as part of the process of deciding who should be allowed to vote for the new Labour leader. I first became aware of it when writer Owen Hatherley – who had applied to become a supporter – reported receiving the email reproduced in part above. Seeing he never belonged to an organisation opposed to the Labour Party, he went on to wonder what his infraction might be, and what incorrect opinions he might have voiced where, before eventually concluding:
expect from henceforth Le Carre-like circumspection and politesse
— Owen Hatherley (@owenhatherley) August 21, 2015
What had become clear by then is that applicants were being tagged for a variety of indiscretions, but sifting through social media was integral to the vetting process. This post from the Facebook page of the Oxford University Labour club explains:
Hi all, just some information on reporting entryism. If you know that someone who has recently signed up to the party as member, supporter or affiliate, is in fact not a supporter of Labour, you should email their name to firstname.lastname@example.org along with proof and their vote will be removed (even if it is already been cast).
Proof can include: Facebook posts, photos or messages, tweets, texts, notices of polls or any other written expression of support for a party or group other than Labour, or opposed to Labour.
Please do report anyone you suspect should be ineligible – and you too could be called a star by the Compliance Unit.
It is not totally clear whether the ghastly name given to the operation – ‘Ice Pick’, as in the weapon used to mortally wound Leon Trotsky – originates from inside the party or was thought up by an especially sardonic critic, but the contention that its ultimate aim may be to root out radicals has some intuitive merit: given the presence among the candidates of an insurgent with considerable appeal among disaffected voters and activists, trawling for past declarations of criticism in order to disqualify new members would have precisely that effect.
Look at the list of some of the most well-known rejected applicants – which beside Hatherley includes writer and broadcaster Marcus Chown, comedians Mark Steele and Jeremy Hardy, and film director Ken Loach – and you’ll form the picture of the kind of people that Labour doesn’t care to appeal to, and the kinds of deviations it won’t tolerate. It is true that some of these intellectuals supported rival political organisations (in Chown’s case, a special interest group set up to defend the NHS which stood candidates against Labour), but what we’re faced with here is not entryism as is traditionally understood. None of these individuals are trying to infiltrate Labour as part of a deliberate, orchestrated political strategy. It is the party itself, rather, that has offered them an opportunity to join (or, in some cases, re-join) their ranks. That some within the party may deem this outcome undesirable is bitterly ironic but also speaks to deep contradictions in the relationship between political organizations and their base.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the question of party discipline in the age of social media following the publication by the Italian Communist Party of a comically misguided list of rules on how its members should conduct themselves on the internet. My point was not to dismiss the question altogether, just as I do not mean to suggest that parties shouldn’t protect themselves from being taken over by outsiders, or relinquish the right to turn away or expel some of their members. It is when old ideas about what constitutes public expression are extended wholesale to new mediums that problems arise and contradictions erupt.
Social media are increasingly supplanting traditional spaces for political debate on the left such as the office, the factory floor, the political or social club, even the pub. These conversations differ from those in that anyone can look or listen in, yet it would not only be naïve but also profoundly unjust to demand that participants always be faithful to the line, and that party members espouse at all times the positions dictated by the leadership. Equally, the fact that all of these conversations are recorded in a vast public archive does not make them equivalent to a traditional publication record when it comes to establishing the credentials of prospective party members. A principle of natural justice should apply. One might reasonably say: when I criticised Labour for their positions on the NHS or immigration in 2013, I didn’t know that it might disqualify me from joining the party in 2015; had I known, I might have expressed myself differently.
Data Protection expert Tim Turner has made a very cogent argument for the inherent unfairness of the process, even while proposing that Labour is in fact entitled to trawl through the information:
Without some form of appeal, I think the rights and freedoms of the data subjects have been prejudiced […]. [R]eceiving and acting on tip-offs and reports isn’t just disturbingly McCarthyite, it would be a breach of the Data Protection Act unless registered supporters were told. There are in fact a host of potential problems (accuracy, relevance, security), but the fairness one is enough because it is insurmountable. We should have been told – we weren’t.
Turner goes on to advise affected members to make a subject access request and publicise the reasons for their rejection, to make the process transparent and highlight its flaws. Others have encouraged them to sign up to a database that might help determine what the majority of rejected members have in common. This might shed some light on the underlying political questions, which are undoubtedly important, but there is a broader principle at stake. What kind of discipline is required of the modern rank and file, what kind of expression tolerated or encouraged? And what does it say when taking a public stance in defence of the NHS results in being rejected by the party that founded it?
I’m not calling this time for an internet that forgets, for the response need not be to delete those conversations nor restrict access to the spaces in which they occur. The question is not one of legitimate access but of legitimate interest and use. Think of how a social historian or biographer might view the information, versus a prospective employer, an intelligence agency or the Compliance Unit of a political party. Social media draw us into the open and make our voices public: this is a resource, a common good, but only until such time as the logic of surveillance is turned against it. This is why it matters less to me whether it will mostly be Corbyn’s supporters who are rejected, or the distribution turns out to be more or less equal. Operation Ice Pick is already defining of a reactionary political project, for it negates the value of criticism and debate other than as instruments of control. As Hatherley wrily observes, we are being listened to: we need a politics in which this fact need not be feared.