Amid on-going claims the Labour leadership election was infiltrated by the hard left and Tories determined to sabotage the process, Harriet Harman, the interim Labour leader, has defended the integrity of the party’s election process.
By offering a vote to anyone paying a £3 fee, Labour has faced allegations it left itself vulnerable to mass infiltration. Upon signing up as a registered supporter, individuals must agree to the declaration: “I support the aims and values of the Labour Party, and I am not a supporter of any organisation opposed to it.”
Lawyers have since warned the party that its perceived attempts to weed out “infiltrators” from its leadership election could be in breach of data protection laws.
Speaking after a meeting with leadership candidates Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall, held after concerns were raised that thousands of people opposed to Labour remained eligible to vote, Ms Harman rejected claims that some supporters were “purged” by the party after people who voted in the leadership contest were vetted.
Stating that they had debated “what further information could be used” in investigations into new members and supporters, Ms Harman affirmed that people had to support the aims and values of the Labour party to get a vote.
“In undertaking these processes, we are completely impartial, the question is not which candidate you support, but do you support the aims and values of the Labour party. I want to absolutely assert, the party has been completely impartial as between the candidates but the party is not agnostic about the 2014 rules. The question is not which candidate you support. The question is do you support the aims and values of the Labour party.”
The party has assigned around 70 workers to sift through new sign-ups to determine their eligibility. Intelligence on prospective voters, including information on local political activity and even social media postings is being provided by activists in constituency branches.
Although Labour has banned the use of voter information amassed by door-to-door canvassing volunteers, and confirmed that party workers had been told not to use canvass data in the process, party sources have acknowledged that such information had been used for cross-referencing regardless.
Ms Harman said she was “confident” there would be no legal challenges over the process.
If Labour has used canvassing data to exclude supporters, they could find themselves in very questionable legal territory as they are not properly telling people how their information will be used. Certainly, ethically, it all feels very wrong. Known as ‘fair processing,’ the Data Protection Act demands fairness in the handling of people's personal information and states that to process data fairly, people must be told how their data will be used.
Electioneering information is limited to particular purposes and should not be used for membership verification and automatic exclusion unless the individual whom it concerns has given express permission for it to be used that way. If prospective voters are giving their personal details for one purpose, it isn’t appropriate for the party to then use them for another.
Voter engagement by political parties is obviously crucial in a healthy democracy and campaigners will seek to engage prospective voters in a number of ways. Contacting individuals by post, email or phone to promote a political view in order to gain support at the ballot box is known as ‘direct marketing’ and is regulated by law.
Under the Privacy and Electronic Communication (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR) and the Data Protection Act there are specific rules organisations must comply with for each method of communication used.
According to the Data Protection Act “sensitive personal data” includes information as to political opinions. Generally the Act only covers information processed digitally in some way or stored on paper before it is uploaded. How you get consent to use data can vary between an opt-in or opt-out but by law, individuals must usually give explicit consent for their sensitive personal information to be processed or used and for clearly defined purposes.
Political campaign methods rightly come under close scrutiny from the public and media. Political parties must always respect the privacy of the individuals they seek to represent. This includes using their information only in a way they would expect.
Latest figures show 68,000 members have joined Labour since the May general election. Out of the 262,000 existing Labour party members, 20,000 have joined since leadership nominations closed.
After paying their £3 online, a further 21,000 have joined as registered supporters after being checked to see they were on the electoral register. 3,000 alleged “cheats” have so far been excluded from voting.
A Labour spokeswoman said: "We take our responsibilities under data protection very seriously and are confident our procedures are fully compliant.”
Katherine Niccol is a Business Services Solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in London.