Can the Labour Right "save" the party from its members? Can they defeat Corbyn despite the strong support he has from constituency activists? The parliamentary party and the unelected machinery has evinced a strong presumption in favour of their right to rule, but that hasn't been enough to prevail so far.
The anti-Corbyn lobby group, Saving Labour, has been confidently briefing that Owen Smith is likely to win by a small margin. They are basing this on the idea that there has been a shift against Corbyn among trade union supporters, and an influx of anti-Corbyn voters among the registered supporters. The current polling, however, shows that Corbyn wins overwhelmingly among registered supporters (some 70 percent) and strongly among trade union affiliates (54 percent). In fact, Smith's support is strongest among full members, and even there he's trailing by 12 points.
The only chance they have, it seems, is if the current round of expulsions and suspensions bears significant fruit. Can they do it? There can be no doubting their ruthlessness. The suspension of party branch meetings amid accusations of bullying, and the "freeze date" set by the NEC on the participation of recently joined supporters and trade union affiliates, suggests that the machinery is throwing everything against the wall to see if it will stick. And the examples of excluded members thus far makes it appear as if the process is unusually severe.
One of the easiest ways to bar members is to prove past support for other political parties, such as the Green Party. Dr Gemma Angel has been barred from voting on the basis of a tweet from 2014 supporting the Greens in the local elections that year. Ben Crawford "showed support for the Green Partyon Twitter in 2014 and 2015". Sophie McKeand "tweeted in support of the Green Party on 8 May 2015". Tom Carlin was excluded for having "stated on social media" that he "voted against Labour" in the last election. In other cases, they have been told of no specific evidence or instance of such behaviour. Ewan Gibbs of the University of West Scotland, a long-standing Labour supporter, has simply been told that he has "publicly shown support for other parties on Facebook".
Other grounds for disciplinary action or exclusion have included the sharing of "inappropriate content on Facebook". Catherine Starr was told that she had posted inappropriate content on a day where her major postings included posts about veganism, animal free cosmetics, and the Foo Fighters. Ronnie Draper, the general secretary of the bakers' union, was excluded on the basis of "social media posts" that for some unspecified reason contravened Labour's rules. Former miner John Dunn was expelled for a Facebook post comparing the anti-Corbyn coup to scabbing during the miners' strike. Jae Robinson was suspended for non-specific "posts on social media". A party member named Eileen was accused of abusive behaviour in unspecified emails, which she claims never to have written.
This is all as perverse as it sounds. It would be odd for Labour not to want to win back support lost to the Greens or the SNP, odder still to expect everyone to have lifelong tribal party affiliation in this day and age. A party that didn't want converts would not have welcomed former Tory MPs like Shaun Woodward, Robert Jackson, and Quentin Davies to its own parliamentary benches. At the same time, party apparatchiks sifting through the social media accounts of would-be members for scattered examples of "inappropriate conduct" or conflict with Labour's "aims and values", give the impression of a deeply paranoid and intrusive machine.
What many of the newly signed-up £25 fee-payers may not realise is that they have been conscripted into assisting this process. Many will have filled in a box indicating their social media accounts, even though this information is pretty irrelevant from the point of view of a party application. There is some speculation among members that software is being used to track applicants on social media. The Mirror reports claims that the compliance unit is scouring supporters' social media accounts for key words such as "traitor," "scab" and "blairite". In many cases, however, the complaints are coming from the usual sources – local party members or notables who contact the compliance office if they take exception to a new member. Stephen Bush of the New Statesman reports a conversation with a party staffer who says that the complaints to the compliance unit are "nastier" than last year – more obviously groundless and based on personal animosity, which is predictable given the vicious turn that the internal power struggle has taken.
It would be easier to dampen down speculation if the process was more transparent. But it is becoming almost impossible for members denied information about the basis of their exclusion to find out what has happened. Until recently, members who called Labour HQ to ask about their exclusion would have got someone friendly on the phone, be given a brief explanation and would have the opportunity to challenge it there and then. Now they refuse to give out information over the phone, even though it is often not included in the generic letters that people are sent. Since members are not given a copy of the rulebook, nor any detailed information about the investigation process, they are left to stew and fume on social media.
What is the point of all this? In order to affect the outcome they would need to purge somewhere in the region of a hundred thousand members. Current estimates suggest it could be anything between 3-15,000. Unless the polls are wildly wrong, this can't work. What is more, there are signs that it is alienating the middle ground, as non-Corbynites defend his leadership. But more and more, it reeks – like everything else the Labour Right has been doing in recent months – of an incoherent scorched earth policy, whose only definite purpose is to leave a trail of destruction and bitterness.
More from VICE: