Shapps in March 2015, outside 10 Downing Street. Photo: Getty Images
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Tory chairman Grant Shapps denies vandalising rivals' Wikipedia pages

Wikipedia has suspended a user account which it claims has been engaged in "sock puppetry", improving Grant Shapps' biography and editing those of Conservative cabinet ministers.

An election scoop from the Guardian, which claims to have uncovered evidence that Grant Shapps, or someone close to the Conservative Party chairman, has been engaging in a little reputational vandalism on Wikipedia:

Wikipedia has blocked a user account on suspicions that it is being used by the Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps "or someone acting on his behalf" to edit his own page as well as the entries of Tory rivals and political opponents.

The online encylopedia, where pages are edited and created by readers, has tracked the changes made by a user called “Contribsx” who has systematically removed embarrassing references on Shapps’ Wikipedia page about the Tory chairman’s business activities as Michael Green, the self-styled millionaire web marketeer.

The Contribsx account has a user profile that lists every edit it is responsible for, going back to its creation in August 2013, as well as a self-authored bio. Contribsx' "interests include politics, current affairs and historic biographies" with a particular focus on British and American politics. However, as the Guardian has noted, this person (or these persons) has an overwhelming interest in current Tory politicians - besides the dozens of edits to Shapps' Wikipedia page, the pages for Francis Maude, Dominic Grieve, Michael Fabricant, Eric Pickles and Michael Heseltine have all been edited by this user.

That was enough to trigger the suspicions of Wikipedia's admins, who believe Contribsx to be a so-called "sock puppet" - an account on a website setup by a user just to secretly push an agenda. It happens everywhere online, but Wikipedia's extensive open records of user activities make catching sock puppets somewhat easier than in other places.

This isn't the first time that Shapps has been accused of sock puppetry. In September 2012, four user accounts with IP addresses registered to Shapps' office were banned after it became clear that they were making a number of edits to delete embarrassing gaffes made over the preceding years, such as impersonating Lib Dem activists online to try to discredit a by-election rival; or to erase mentions of his online pseudonym Michael Green, and his "get rich quick" internet marketing company HowToCorp, which were the subject of a recent notorious Newsnight interview where the Tory chairman squirmed under direct questioning.

The investigations page on Wikipedia lists the evidence in favour of Contribsx being a sock puppet under the direction of the same person (or persons) behind the four accounts from 2012. Here are just some examples:

  • [1] Contribsx attacks an opposition MP who had referred Shapps' activities to the police, and who had provided a quote critical of Shapps to the Guardian here.
  • [2] Contribsx made a change to Michael Fabricant’s page to say he was sacked by Grant Shapps rather than on the order of Lynton Crosby.
  • Unlike many others in his party, Shapps is a big supporter of gay marriage and got into a spat with several other politicans (cf. here) and Contribsx made edits to draw attention to other Cabinet members for supporting gay marriage here and here.
  • This shows Contribsx making an edit critical of Justine Greening for missing a vote, and being against a third runway at Heathrow. Shapps, has criticised her for this in the past.
  • Shapps was the Conservative party Chairman who sat in judgement over Afzal Amin in 2015, after Amin resigned over claims he had links to far-right group the English Defence League. Contribsx links to his successor, and created the page for his previously unknown successor - which was deleted as failing notability guidelines. he also got into a bit of a spat about on on [the talk page.
  • Contribsx also edits huge swathes of the Grant Shapps page, almost always removing criticism. These can be viewed on Contribsx's contributions page and going into detail here would be superfluous...

There's also a lot of overlap between the IP addresses used by Contribsx and other edits that focus on things like deleting mentions of HowToCorp - and the account was created on the very same day that several other accounts with an unusual interest in Shapps' history were banned. The admin who took the decision, a user called "Chase me, I'm the cavalry", thanked the Guardian for bringing the issue to their attention.

Shapps has told the Guardian that the accusations are "false and defamatory". On Twitter, the account @ToryChairman added: 

I'm a mole, innit.

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.