Labour members have accused MP and shadow cabinet minister Rachel Reeves of misusing their data to influence her constituency party’s democracy, and not for the first time.
In an email sent to select members of Leeds West constituency Labour party (CLP), their MP shared a “reminder” of her preferred candidates in the CLP’s ongoing vote on national executive committee (NEC) nominations.
The Labour party has said it has found no evidence of a breach of either GDPR or party rules.
The email was sent from Reeves’ personal address a few hours after online voting opened on 23 September. It was received by a number of CLP members who had attended the previous day’s nomination meeting. Reeves, as a non-CLP member, having moved from Leeds West to the neighbouring Pudsey in 2018, was not entitled to attend the meeting. Some members therefore suspect that an attendee list was shared privately with her.
In response to complaints from members, Yorkshire and the Humber Labour party stated that “we haven’t been able to find any evidence to support the allegation that someone had shared an attendance list” with Reeves. They said that Reeves’ message was merely a “follow up email” to members whom she had previously contacted asking them to attend the nomination meeting. But at least two people contacted by Reeves told Novara Media this was untrue: they were not contacted by her before the meeting.
Even if Reeves had drawn her addressees from a privately-supplied list, the regional party continued, “members would usually expect minutes of the meeting produced at a later date to contain a list of those present so again this would also not constitute a data breach.” It is not clear that this is an adequate defence.
Under Labour party rules, MPs are permitted to access members’ data in the areas they represent. However, they are also bound by GDPR, one of the principles of which is transparent data processing. Minutes of the CLP meeting, which would have been shared with Reeves in due course, were not yet published at the time she contacted attendees, none of whom consented to having their data shared with her during the vote.
While the Labour party told Novara Media it has found no evidence of a breach, a source inside the party contradicted this: “It’s definitely outside of what an MP should be using the [members’] data for … If a CLP Sec[retary] did that, their data access would be taken away.”
Indeed, this has happened recently. In May, Labour suspended four members of Liverpool Wavertree – the chair, secretary, women’s and BAME officers – in part for using the membership list to share opinions that had not been agreed upon by the CLP.
One Leeds West member, who wished to remain anonymous, said that Reeves’ actions fitted a pattern of anti-democratic behaviour. During his five years as a member of the CLP, he told Novara, he has witnessed Reeves try to influence CLP votes on numerous occasions. “Whenever there’s an AGM, she whips her supporters into the meeting to vote for her people,” he said. He claims Reeves contacted another member encouraging them to attend last year’s AGM “to stop that Momentum lot taking over”. He also recalled a time “two or three years ago, when she didn’t want a leftwinger to become conference delegate, so messaged people telling them not to vote for her”.
The member suspects that Reeves’ most recent intervention materially affected the outcome of the CLP election: her preferred candidate for disabled members representative won the nomination by two votes; her preferred candidate for treasurer, by three.
He believes Reeves is abusing her access to the membership register to advance a rightwing agenda. “Our view [as leftwing members of the CLP] is that MPs have access to members’ data in order to campaign for the party. But Rachel uses it to campaign on her own behalf.”
The member says that Reeves’ actions have frustrated the CLP’s left wing. “All of us on the left have gone out canvassing for Rachel, because she’s our Labour candidate. The feeling is that it’s a one-way street: she doesn’t care about us.”
Mish Rahman, an NEC candidate on the Momentum-backed Grassroots Voice slate, says he would expect better from a senior shadow cabinet minister. “If any MP is found to have improperly influenced CLP nomination processes,” he said in a statement to Novara Media, “I am extremely disappointed.
“NEC CLP reps are elected to stand up for the grassroots, and to fight for the policies and procedures that ordinary members care about, from a green new deal to increased party democracy.
“The parliamentary Labour party has demonstrated again and again over the last few years that they wield huge power within our movement. In this election, they need to let the rest of us have a say.”
Jon Lansman, former chair of Momentum and a member of the NEC, sees Reeves’ behaviour as a return to the “bad old days” of unabashed factionalism within CLPs, recalling Neil Coyle’s attempts to whip members in Bermondsey, and Ian McNicol’s pledge to clean up such foul play in his bid for general secretary. Lansman notes that data misuse was commonplace before Corbyn took charge, with party staff and regional officials supplying their favoured, often rightwing parliamentary candidates with access to the membership list “way in advance” of other candidates. “That is the way it was until 2015. It looks like factional organising on the right has restarted, big time.”
While Lansman acknowledges that MPs are not obliged to be impartial in CLP matters, he believes Reeves’ use of membership data for factional purposes, like Coyle’s, is unacceptable.
“If she were approaching people she regarded as friends and comrades saying who she thought they should vote for, that’s another matter,” Lansman told Novara Media. “It’s her use of the membership system, which she has access to for her responsibilities as an MP, which is wrong.
“Even if MPs are legitimately factional some of the time, there are limits. They’ve a moral and professional responsibility, too. They’re entitled to an opinion – they’re not entitled to abuse their position of power.”
Rivkah Brown is a writer and the editor of Vashti.