The Surveillance Party Redux



Details of how the Labour party used an ersatz SIGINT operation against it’s own (prospective) members and supporters have come to light in the Forde Inquiry. This provides confirmation that the National Executive Committee (NEC) were excluding people for political expression on social media that didn’t align to their chosen ideology.


Almost six years ago I wrote The Surveillance Party to describe how the UK Labour Party ran an ersatz SIGINT operation to block people from becoming supporters, and then voting in their upcoming leadership election. I had to speculate back then about some of the details, because (like with proper SIGINT) everything was cloaked in secrecy.

But now we have the Forde Report (pdf)[1,2], which has a section on the ‘2015-2016 “validation” exercises’ (starting at page 40). This tells us who was doing the work, and reveals some high level details of how it was executed.

Who did it?

I was wrong in speculating that it would be a law firm or ‘big 4’ consulting firm. C2.14 tells us that the work actually went to a group of casual staff employed from the ranks of Labour Students. This might have been cheaper, but meant that some of those involved inevitably lacked the ideological purity to complete the task at hand without question or concern.

What were they looking for?

C2.17 of the report mentions ‘1,959 “flagged phrases”‘ and ’35 abusive phrases which included the word “Blairite” or “Blair”‘.

I wrote another post ‘Racist, abusive or foul language‘ looking at my tweets from the day referenced in my supporter application refusal. Since we don’t have the full list of phrases there’s still some need for speculation here, but in my case I’d expect it was ‘neoliberal’ or my RT of something with ‘#ChickenCoup’ that did it for me.

What were the consequences?

C2.20 notes that ‘there had been just under 4,000 “total actions by the NEC which includes all Supporter Rejections, Membership rejections, Auto Exclusions and Administrative Suspensions”, and that 1,024 of those actions had been against existing members’.

I was a bit miffed about not being able to participate in a democratic process I’d paid £25 to engage in. But those 1024, they’re ANGRY. I was at a screening of Ithaka the other day, which had Q&A afterwards, and one of the folk asking a question opened by describing himself as ‘an exiled member of the Labour party’. Labour was part of their identity, and taking that away from them has caused harm that they’re not ashamed to be noisy about.

Looking at the past, present, and future


Going back over all this had me revisiting why I’d even applied for a vote. I think the main thing was frustration at the Brexit referendum, and wanting to have some kind of say in the future of the country by helping to choose the leader of the opposition (or LOTO as the report frequently refrains).

The really mad thing here is that a process to exclude left wing ‘trots’ got me even though I’d not even made up my mind at that stage whether I’d cast my vote for or against ‘Jezza’.


It’s amusing to contrast what happened with Labour in 2016 with what’s happening with the Conservatives in 2022. Another party, another leadership election that involves members. The Tories don’t seem to care at all about entryism, they’re just happy to take the money. Of course the Tories are in the shape they’re in following years of entryism from ‘Kippers‘; which is why I have no interest in voting this time around as both candidates are awful.


It seems likely that this sort of shenanigans will happen more going forward. For Labour the lesson from Forde on this point will simply be that they have to ensure that their criteria for exclusion are properly promulgated. Other parties in other places will learn from what happened, and whilst we might hope the lesson will be “that’s a dystopian nightmare, let’s not do that”, I fear it will actually be “this is how we keep the membership pure”. This is not good for democracy or the conversations needed to facilitate it.


It’s interesting to finally see behind the curtain, and confirm that what I thought was happening is mostly what was happening. I was wrong on some speculative details, but right on the broad sweep of what was happening. The report spends some pages on this because what was happening wasn’t good for the party or the people it should serve; but perhaps swerves from calling out the full horror or providing more comprehensive resources (like the ‘flagged phrases’ lists).

I’m not optimistic that Labour in particular, and political parties in general, are headed in the right direction on this topic.


[1] Thanks to Craig Murray for drawing my attention to the report in his ‘The Forde Report and the Labour Right‘. I’d missed it myself amongst the news being saturated with climate disaster, the Tory performative awfulness contest, and the Lionesses kicking their way towards the Euro 2022 Final.
[2] Of course the report is published as a pdf, rather than something that can be usefully searched, indexed and cross referenced like a web page. ‘Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence’, and there are plenty of (old) organisations out there that ply their trade in electronic versions of dead tree publications. But come on… it really feels like they didn’t want this stuff to be linkable.

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