Sir Keir Starmer may lack warmth and charisma, and he may come across as dull and serious. But at least, his supporters maintain, he has a reputation for integrity. After all, this is a man who was once the country’s top prosecutor — a stickler for the rules who picked Sue Gray, the former government ethics adviser, as his chief of staff.
Last week, however, a scandal erupted that suggests Labour may be just as sleazy and corrupt as some of its Conservative opponents. In the plum seat of Croydon East, there are complaints that Labour’s selection of a parliamentary candidate may have involved identity theft and voter manipulation. Moreover, there are suggestions that this could be part of a much wider campaign that involves senior party figures, a systematic programme of data protection offences, and interference in Labour’s supposedly democratic procedures.
Such allegations largely relate to the option for party members to use an electronic voting programme in parliamentary selections, which many see as a way for party bigwigs to fix elections for their chosen candidates. “The online voting is as dodgy as hell,” one successful candidate from outside London tells me. “There was an unbelievable discrepancy between votes on the day [of their selection meeting] and online votes.” Another candidate, who failed to win their distinguished reputation, added: “I was stitched up on the electronic online vote. I won the selection [among non-electric ballots] and the party machine then picked the winner, not the members.”
What form might this “stitch-up” take? According to Joanna O’Pray, an alleged victim in Croydon East, she discovered that an e-vote had been issued in her name, even though she hadn’t applied for one. The former youth worker has already complained to the police and the Information Commissioner, and has submitted a data protection request to the Labour Party demanding to know if somebody fraudulently voted in her name.
Joanna, 56, was first alerted to the discrepancy after a Labour activist friend called her to say she was on the membership lists handed to the contenders in the Croydon East selection, and therefore entitled to vote. This came as a surprise: Joanna had decided to let her Labour membership lapse at the end of 2022, having become disillusioned with the way things were being run under Keir Starmer.
Peculiarly, she was told that the membership list had recorded the wrong address for her — at number 50 on her street, rather than at 59, where she had lived for years. Stranger still, she then received a call from one of the campaign teams to say she had asked for an electronic vote.
After Joanna explained that she hadn’t requested one, she asked the caller what email address the Party had for her on their membership list. It was OPrayJoanne@gmail.com. Immediately, Joanna suspected someone had stolen her identity: she never calls herself “Joanne”. The email address was clearly false — someone was attempting to vote in her name.
Now, if Joanna were just an isolated case, one might be able to dismiss it as a quirk or minor error. But it seems she isn’t alone. Over the past week, a group of concerned members in the Croydon East Labour Party have found at least six other cases of unrequested e-votes being allocated. In each case, they were registered with an email address that isn’t theirs.
Moreover, from a local party membership of just over 600 people, there are around 80 cases of individuals having their addresses changed. About a dozen of these seem to have moved home to another part of the same constituency. But in almost 70 cases, people are recorded as having moved to a different house on the same street — just as Joanna O’Pray was supposed to have done. I have been shown a chart comparing the correct and incorrect members’ addresses, and it is immediately clear the changes can’t be blamed on simple human error. It’s systematic.
Similarly, there are 26 other cases where members have had their phone numbers changed, usually by switching a single digit. As with the addresses, this appears to be an attempt to impede certain selection candidates by making it difficult for them to approach members for their support.
Last week, several members complained about this apparent tampering to the Labour Party, and their concerns were shared by at least three of the four contenders. On Thursday afternoon, the London Labour Party suspended the selection and announced an investigation. The suspicion was that someone — either within the constituency Labour party or at regional Labour HQ — had deliberately altered the membership list.
For those of us who have been monitoring Labour’s selections over the past 18 months, such allegations are far from isolated. Since Starmer took power, both his national and regional party machines have been engaged in a concerted campaign to ensure that anybody who tries to become an MP at the next election is totally loyal to the leadership. Of 175 candidates picked for Labour so far, only five are on the Left.
With this in mind, the candidates’ operation at Labour HQ identifies who it would like to win in each selection and then quietly gives them help. This might take the form of an introduction to key local figures or, in some cases it seems, access to the local party membership list well ahead of the official canvassing period, which gives them extra time to win votes.
Particular suspicion, however, surrounds the online voting system used in most selections, which normally employs a software called Anonyvoter. The main charge isn’t that there is anything inherently flawed in the programme, but that it can be exploited by unscrupulous officials.
I have been shown, for instance, how easy it would be for a dishonest operator to change a member’s email address without their knowledge, and then allocate the member’s e-vote to a fake address and cast a vote from it. (No proof of identity is required.) Moreover, in the run-up to an e-vote deadline, an operator can also see which people haven’t cast their vote — meaning they could, hypothetically, then tip off a favoured candidate about whom they should target.
There is no evidence to suggest this has taken place, though it is striking that several recent Labour candidate selections have seen huge divergences between the online vote and those cast at meetings. One of the biggest differences occurred in Lanark and Hamilton East in July, when Imogen Walker, wife of Labour’s election campaign chief Morgan McSweeney, won surprisingly narrowly against a young and inexperienced local contender, Gavin Keatt, by just 62 votes to 55. Keatt actually won strongly at the hustings meeting, but Walker took the nomination by winning decisively with online votes.
Doubts have also been raised in a number of other seats over the past 18 months, particularly where the results were close, including in Uxbridge, Thurrock, Bolsover, Merthyr Tydfil and Dover, where the executive of the local party submitted a complaint about selection procedures, particularly the safety of electronic voting.
In Ilford South, Sam Tarry — the party’s Left-wing former transport spokesman and ex-boyfriend of deputy leader Angela Rayner — was deselected last year. Supporters are still convinced his defeat by 499 votes to 361 was a fraud, and totally out of line with their canvass returns. There was “utter corruption”, says one Tarry ally, including “ghost members at councillors’ landlord addresses, large numbers of members not on the electoral register”, and at least one voter who had died years before.
Maybe these are the grumblings of sore losers, or the imaginings of conspiracists. Maybe HQ-approved contenders are simply better organisers or more popular. But having followed Labour’s processes since Starmer became leader, I am convinced that many selection contests have been fiddled and fixed by party officials.
It is completely unsatisfactory that the investigation into Croydon East should be carried out by the London Labour Party, when there may have been wrongdoing within the London HQ itself. What’s more, it should be possible to carry out the investigation within hours — a simple examination of the digital history should determine who did what and when. Yet in all probability, the inquiry will take weeks, if not months.
Instead, it’s time for Starmer and Gray to step in and settle the matter. Indeed, Gray may already know quite a lot about e-votes: her son Liam Conlon is favourite in today’s selection in Beckenham and Penge, where I’m told there are almost 400 e-votes in an electorate of almost 1,400.
Until the discrepancies in Croydon are resolved, Starmer should suspend such voting in Labour selections, as well as appoint an independent KC, together with an IT expert, to carry out a thorough investigation into all the concerns about online fraud. If necessary, selections should be re-run — even if that means dozens of re-runs. And a system of safeguards should be introduced for online votes to ensure future winners and losers are happy their results weren’t tainted by fraud, and the process can be properly observed by all parties. Above all, Labour needs to be totally honest if anything has gone wrong.
Any weaker response from Starmer and Gray will only leave the suspicion that dozens of Labour MPs in the next Parliament only got their jobs through a deeply flawed, possibly criminal selection process. Nor, of course, would it look good for a former DPP and a government ethics adviser to be accused of a “cover-up” months before they’ve even reached the gates of Downing Street.
A Labour Party spokesperson said: “We are aware of concerns around selections in Croydon. We have paused these selections and are working at pace to resolve the issues.”
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