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Is Labour purging supporters of Jeremy Corbyn?

What is the science behind getting kicked out of Labour's leadership process?

Labour has just kicked off its first big wave of expulsions, purging many voters from the party’s leadership rolls. Twitter is ablaze with activists who believe they have been kicked out because they are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. There are, I'm told, more expulsions to come - what's going on?  Is Labour purging its rolls of Corbyn supporters?

The short answer is “No”. Any conversation about Labour’s headquarters has to begin with the understanding that the party has little money and fewer staff – many left after the general election, either because their contracts expired, their bosses were defeated or because they were recruited by one of the leadership campaigns. The party has neither the personnel or the resources for a genuinely exhaustive search through the social media profiles of every would-be-joiner.

So what does Labour's the party's plan to ensure a "clean" leadership ballot, dubbed "Operation Icepick" by outsiders, actually involve? The doomsday scenario at headquarters isn't a Corbyn victory - all but one or two of the party's staff believe that is inevitable - but a legal challenge following a close Corbyn victory. 

So every member of staff still at Brewers' Green has been drafted in to assist. What does the cleansing of the rolls look like?

The party has a large backlog of emails from local party chairs and individual members reporting what they believe to be voters and members who ought to be barred from the leadership. The reasons range from the clear-cut – Marcus Chown, who has been expelled today, is on the ruling executive of the National Health Action party – to the ridiculous – one member was reported for failing to attend the CLP barbecue, in a complaint that has not been upheld but at this stage in the process, all that happens is that staffers gather the evidence, and pass it up the NEC, who ultimately decides whether or not to expel voters from the rolls. (Liking or following another political party on Facebook is not grounds for dismissal –  tweeting or posting about joining another political party after the election is.)

The party has also compiled a large – but not exhaustive – list of candidates, both for Westminster and the 2015 local elections, and their supporting nominations. Celebrities who have raised money for the party’s opponents – like Jeremy Hardy or Mark Steel – have also been listed.

As one staffer reflected, the problem is that “We sell Labour membership as being about values and let people forget that they have to sign up to the aims too”. All but a vanishingly small number of Labour’s new recruits are not Conservatives out to do the party harm – like Tim Loughton, the children’s minister, or the right-wing commentator Toby Young – but people who share the party’s views and outlook.

It’s not their support for the old Clause IV, but their opposition to Clause I – the election of a parliamentary Labour party against all opposition, even the likes of Caroline Lucas and Sandi Toksvig’s Women’s Equality Party – that is causing the trouble.

But there is still the potential for huge unfairness in the system. A young activist who tweets about joining the Women’s Equality Party will almost certainly be expelled. But a member of the Conservatives or Green party joining in a near-moribund local party in a Conservative stronghold – East Surrey, say, or Beaconsfield – perhaps older in years, unlikely to be on Twitter, with a Facebook restricted to say, 50 or so of their friends, will get through.

Ultimately, the operation is not going to prevent Corbyn becoming leader – and that there will be less Greens, Conservative, Ukip councillors and the rest voting will strengthen his mandate.

But the big underlying problem is the culture clash within the Labour party: not between left and right, but between those who recognise that as party membership continues its longterm decline, and voters shop around more and more, its old model, predicated on absolute loyalty, won’t provide it with the influx of talent or new ideas it will need to survive in the coming decades.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?