Having read the Forde inquiry’s ‘invitation to offer evidence and views’ “into the circumstances and contents of the report entitled “The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014-2019”
And having read the inquiry’s terms of reference – that include looking at:
“The structure, culture and practices of the Labour Party organisation including the relationship between senior party staff and the elected leadership of the Labour Party, as the Panel think appropriate having regard to their investigation as a whole.”
I have decided that I may have something useful to say with regard to this:
I believe that the report brings to light more than a failure in handling anti-Semitism complaints, more than racist attitudes among senior staff members and more than the recorded intent and actions of senior party staff to undermine the elected leadership of the Labour Party. These aspects have been discussed widely and are important, but what has been less discussed in my view, and is even more important in my view, is the ‘New Stasi’ system of member surveillance.
It is section 2.2.3 of the report that references this ‘New Stasi’ system. The section begins:
2.2.3. The “Validation” process
“I’ll work on an experimental new stasi system” “James Schneider has [been flagged] but unfortunately it’s a bit benign” “fuck Momentum”
It was in this context that the Governance and Legal Unit led on a highly controversial operation to “vet” members and supporters by examining their social media feeds – a second round of 2015’s “Trot hunt”, officially called “Validation”. At the time, the Nationbuilder software that Labour used to hold its member and supporter data had agreements with Facebook and Twitter that enabled it to “match” profiles, primarily through people’s email addresses. At the end of June 2016, Richard Shakespeare, Labour’s lead developer, quickly produced a web app that would scrape Twitter and Facebook for tweets, retweets, shares and comments that matched various search criteria, and then match them to profiles of members and supporters, with a basic interface for staff to review the evidence and matches produced.
Later we read:
GLU then initiated and undertook an intensive, large-scale operation to trawl social media and purge the party of some of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters. This operation was falsely described as investigating members for abusive conduct, including antisemitism, but only a small fraction related to antisemitism. Many Corbyn supporters were suspended or excluded from the party on flimsy grounds, while action was not taken against many members on the right of the party reported to GLU for the same conduct. Much of the language for which members were suspended was the same as the language Labour staff used themselves when talking about supporters of Jeremy Corbyn.
While staff boasted privately about creating a “new stasi system”, the scale of the operation was initially hidden from the NEC, with one staff member admitting “we don’t want the NEC to have much of an idea how many there are to review (we’re worried they’ll get scared)”. The NEC was provided with misleading information about the work being undertaken, and never provided with all of the search terms GLU were using, which would have revealed how the “purge” was being “rigged”. Individuals associated with the Labour right whose abusive behaviour was well-documented and reported to the Party were protected from action.
It seems to me that “an intensive, large-scale operation to trawl social media and purge the party of some of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters” must constitute an abuse of members who did not know that when they signed up to join the Party that they were also signing up to be surveilled under a “new stasi system” (the term used by the GLU staff). If members do not understand the implication of this system and its implicit ethos, those who abused their trust certainly did.
The following is a description of the Stasi from Wikipedia:
[The Stasi] was the official state security service of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). It has been described as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies ever to have existed…
One of its main tasks was spying on the population, mainly through a vast network of citizens turned informants, and fighting any opposition by overt and covert measures, including hidden psychological destruction of dissidents (Zersetzung, literally meaning decomposition).
At a moment when states are taking more and more control of the physical aspects our lives and, working with social media corporations that we depend on for our communication, have increasing power to monitor everything we say and do; do we really wish to entrust the reins of government to a party whose instinct is to monitor and censure heterodox opinion and conversation and, essentially, to constrain and control thought?
A society in which people are afraid to express opinion and engage in free and rational discourse cannot be called ‘open’, ‘free’ or ‘democratic’.
We are told that “This operation [the trawling of social media] was falsely described as investigating members for abusive conduct, including antisemitism, but only a small fraction related to antisemitism.” Was this an investigation of all members on the basis of search terms? Was this an investigation of members who had been accused of ‘abusive conduct’? Did the information collected support accusations of ‘abusive conduct’ or was that information taken to constitute ‘abusive conduct’?
These questions matter to me personally because it was on the basis of a trawl through five years of my Facebook posts that I was expelled from the Labour Party. Posts that I had shared were presented as ‘evidence’ but evidence of what? Evidence in support of what charge? Think about it; evidence is usually sought in support of some allegation or conjecture. What were the allegations that preceeded the search for ‘evidence’ in this case?
I submit a link to my response to the allegations that led to my suspension and subsequent expulsion from the Labour Party. I have shared that response on my website and do not consider it confidential. I suggest that it is important as an example of the consequences to Labour Party members of the system of surveillance and censure that its authors rightly term ‘New Stasi’.