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The battle for BAME Labour: will Keith Vaz lose his National Executive Committee seat?

The challenger, Asghar Khan, is backed by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Most Labour voters have probably never heard of Asghar Khan, a postman from Leeds. But if Khan and his supporters win an obscure election this month, he will become part of a powerful inner circle in the Labour party.

Khan is fighting to sit on Labour’s National Executive Committee, on behalf of BAME Labour, a society made up of black and ethnic minority Labour supporters. If he wins after the election closes on 11 August 2017, it will be at the expense of Keith Vaz, the MP for Leicester, who has represented the society since it succeeded the Black Socialist Society in 2007.

A councillor and a trade union rep, Khan says he is standing “because I believe we need more grassroots BAME voices from outside Westminster on the Labour NEC”. But some of those voting for him feel there is more at stake.

Several BAME Labour members told The New Statesman that they felt shut out by an archaic election process, which they say favoured an establishment within the society.

The contest could also be symptomatic of a wider struggle in the party, between a pro-Jeremy Corbyn grassroots and the Corbynsceptic incumbents (Momentum, the pro-Corbyn movement, has made a video in support of Khan).

“The election process is designed to be extremely difficult for new, 'non-establishment' and grassroots members to get involved,” said Becky Boumelha, who wanted to stand as a candidate.

The nominations process remains paper-based, with candidates required to find 20 supporting nominations from individual members, which must be collected in the form of signatures on the paper. Photocopied or scanned signatures are not allowed.

“This makes it incredibly difficult for working people to gather 20 signatures in person from BAME Labour members from all over the country in the two week time period we were given,” said Boumelha.

Candidates who can attract the support of a socialist society or trade union need fewer signatures, but the same rules about how they are collected apply. And finding the trade unions can be hard in the first place - Boumelha said she was unable to find public information about which trade unions were affiliated to BAME Labour.

Boumelha managed to collect 20 signatures, but her application was rejected, ultimately because some of the signatories were “not members of BAME Labour or were not members prior to the six month freeze date” (Boumelha argues this requirement was not clear from the application papers). Josh Jackson, another aspiring candidate, was also stymied by the 20 signatures rule.

A Labour party officer is named on the application forms, so The New Statesman approached the Labour party for comment, but was told this a matter for BAME Labour. 

It is not the first time BAME Labour’s electoral process has come under scrutiny. In 2010, the then-general secretary of the Fabian Society Sunder Katwala noted the low turnout in the BAME Labour election and christened Vaz Labour's "top baron". In 2012 the society was taken to the High Court over the question of whether Vaz was eligible since it was alleged he had not paid his membership fee (Vaz won). 

As for Khan, he told The New Statesman he could not comment on the electoral process. Nevertheless, he criticised the organisation for being too London-centric: “If we want to connect with working-class people we need different people, from different areas.”


Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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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?