It is reasonable for the Labour party to exclude people who oppose its values and aims from the contest to elect a new leader. Conservatives infiltrating the process are committing not mischief but fraud and should be duly ashamed. Hovever, the numbers involved in that kind of chicanery are in all likelihood very small and the controversy around Labour’s vetting process for newly registered “supporters” involves a different phenomenon. Several would-be electors have been excluded on the basis of evidence – some compelling, some flimsy – that they have supported rivals on the left: Greens and fringe socialist groups. Labour is entitled to question these people’s loyalty. Endorsing a different party hardly implies stalwart support. Yet many of those who are being weeded out – or “purged” as they see it – in “Operation Icepick” see themselves as refugees of the anti-Blair left, alienated by the party under recent leaders, seeking a right of return as acolytes of Jeremy Corbyn. This is more a conceptual challenge to Labour than a technical one. The passionate Corbynites who may not have supported Labour in recent years claim nonetheless to be the authentic supporters of the party’s “aims and values” – more so even than the apparatchiks who would seek to exclude them. They challenge the authority of the machine to decide who is entitled to vote in the contest and, in so doing, say they are honouring the spirit of the new rules that offered them a vote at the bargain price of three pounds.
They have a point. The current system was cobbled together during a crisis in Ed Miliband’s leadership. It was meant to encourage wider participation. But it was also supposed to dilute the influence of the big trade unions, who have in fact used it to help to mobilise support for Mr Corbyn. That the other candidates have failed to recruit and energise fan-bases of their own is not the fault of the rules. The charge of “entryism” rings hollow when the party threw open its doors and hung a large entry sign over its porch.
Of course it did so before anyone thought someone with Mr Corbyn’s agenda could become a front-runner. This is viewed as a calamity by his opponents. Naturally they are furious over a mechanism that has, in their eyes, downgraded MPs and loyal party servants by giving them voting rights equal to those of any half-engaged passing protester. They, too, have a point. But that objection raises profound questions about what it means to be a party “supporter” in an age of declining tribal allegiance and rising identity politics, where a spirit of belonging in the moment is posited as the legitimate rival to a lifetime of loyal endorsement. Those questions should have been debated before the new rules were introduced.