Were 67,000 members excluded from the Labour leadership ballot?

Two articles posted by a Labour Party member named Steve Walker on his Skwawkbox blog have been widely circulated on social media over the past few days.

The first of these articles (“BBC figures show AT LEAST 121,000 ELIGIBLE voters denied their vote”), published on 21 September, claimed that huge numbers of Labour Party members who were entitled to participate in the leadership election had been undemocratically prevented from doing so. According to comrade Walker’s shock-horror revelations, “no fewer than 67,000 eligible voters have not received a vote — over 16% of the Labour electorate”.

Walker’s claim was based on his estimate that there were 412,000 party members on the freeze date in January. He subtracted the 345,000 members who were sent ballot papers and concluded that 67,000 eligible members had been denied the right to vote. But the actual membership figure in January (as published in the Guardian at the time) was 388,000 not 412,000 — so the gap was 43,000 not 67,000.

And Walker ignored the fact that eligibility was not determined solely by being registered as a member on 12 January. It was also necessary to be a paid-up member when the ballot papers were issued in August. Individuals who had allowed their membership to lapse or were otherwise in arrears were not entitled to vote.

Therefore, the gap between the 388,000 who were registered as party members in January and the 345,000 who received ballot papers is not as sinister as Steve Walker makes out. The difference is no doubt to be explained mainly by the fact that, just as many members have joined the party this year, others have left it. The claim that “67,000 eligible voters have not received a vote” just didn’t hold up.

But instead of correcting his mistake Walker went on to post a second article on 24 September (“The numbers Labour did NOT want you to see on TV this morning — and why”) which featured the silly allegation that Labour general secretary Iain McNicol and NEC chair Paddy Lillis had colluded to suppress the full details of the leadership election results. This allegation was rather undermined by the fact that the details are in fact freely available on the Labour Party website. But Walker declared that this new revelation showed that his earlier inflated claim about the extent of the purge was if anything an underestimate.

To be clear, I’m not disputing that many members who should have been entitled to vote in the leadership contest were unjustly excluded. There appears to have been a concerted campaign by the Labour right to report Corbyn supporters over comments made on social media and get them disciplined. Leftwing NEC member Christine Shawcroft has reported that 11,250 complaints were made to the party’s compliance unit, of which 3,963 resulted in suspension or expulsion.

An egregious example is to be found in Bristol where some 200 party members were suspended, according to a BBC news report, including three councillors. Presumably this was the result of a rightwing backlash against Corbyn supporters who have reportedly “taken over” the local constituency parties. I’ve no doubt many of these members were wrongly suspended. This is after all the city in which anti-Corbyn MP Thangam Debbonaire responded to a tweet from a Corbyn-sympathising student, which used the colloquial phrase “get in the sea”, by reporting her critic for having issued a death threat. (“This person has just told me to drown — I believe that is a threat to kill.”)

But let’s keep a sense of proportion. If 200 people have been suspended in Bristol, that amounts to 3% of the 6,700 strong party membership. There really isn’t any evidence of exclusions on the scale claimed by Steve Walker in his Skwawkbox articles.

It is of course completely unacceptable that any party member should be suspended and even expelled on the basis of a trawl of their social media accounts, with little or no consideration being given to political context, and often without the accused being shown the details of the charges against them or being offered an opportunity to defend themselves. This is at odds with the recommendations made in Shami Chakrabarti’s report, which called for a disciplinary process based on the principles of natural justice. The NEC will have to ensure that these undemocratic procedures are not repeated and that innocent victims are reinstated.

But promoting conspiracy theories based on wildly exaggerated claims about party members being excluded from the leadership ballot in vast numbers is not helpful. It undermines the case against the purge and discredits the left.