I HAD A SMALL GLIMPSE into what became known as “the purge”. With other volunteers, I managed www.whycantivote.com. The overall patterns of people who had been “purged” fell into three categories.
Members were suspended, out of the blue, for unspecified allegations of abuse on social media, pending investigation into whether there should be disciplinary proceedings. Apparently, the NEC decided that suspended members would lose their votes in the leadership contest (which is not in the Rule Book). Why someone who is innocent, until proven guilty through disciplinary proceedings, should be penalised is an unanswered question.
The contents of the supposedly abusive messages are interesting. I have no doubt that some MPs and other public figures have received dreadful abuse through social media. Those internet trolls, capable of hate speech, did not contact me. Members who did contact me were accused, at worst, of describing MPs as traitors (because of the failed coup), murderers (because of the Syria vote), hawks or bloodstained (because of support for the invasion of Iraq). These are unpleasant terms, but they are not hate speech or threats of violence. The Labour Party will have to work out where the distinction between prohibition of hate speech/threats of violence, and permissible if robust freedom of speech, lies.
The second group are members suspended for alleged support for other political parties. Of those who contacted me, the vast majority were accused of support for the Green Party. A few supported the SNP or Plaid Cymru.
Only a handful supported TUSC or Left Unity. Two were accused of support for the Conservative Party. Most were genuinely bemused and upset. Some had supported the Greens in the past, but were no longer members. Others had simply retweeted tweets from Natalie Bennett, Nicola Sturgeon or Leanne Wood, commenting on a particular policy. It is one thing to prohibit members from standing, or nominating a candidate standing, against Labour. It is quite another to assume that retweeted support for one policy, such as opposition to Trident, constitutes support for a rival political party.
This group is refused any right to appeal, even though some of the accusations result from mistaken identity. There should be a right of appeal to rectify mistakes. And the NEC should start to consider what constitutes support for a rival political party, and how long ago. Surely the Labour Party exists to attract new supporters, including those who had previously supported a different party but have changed their minds, or found that the Labour Party’s policies under our current leader are now to their liking.
The final group was those applying to be registered supporters. Many thousands (official figures say 21,000) were refused as they were thought not to be on the electoral roll. Sometimes that was a mistake which the Party did not rectify. Others were refused on the grounds of unspecified abuse or previous support for a different political party, again overwhelmingly for the Green Party, or one of its policies, in the past. There was no opportunity to dispute these allegations.
How did all this information come to the Party’s attention? Were staff really trawling through the social media accounts of all its 500,000-odd members? Or were individual local vendettas - political or personal - being pursued?
As Chakrabarti recommended, suspension should be used as a last resort pending disciplinary proceedings, not as an immediate knee-jerk response. The prolific and apparently arbitrary use of suspension during a leadership campaign, leaving Party members who were suspended
is a barrister and Honorary Vice President of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. She writes in a personal capacity.