Backwards Momentum

by | Jul 6, 2020 | Uncategorized

To quote from their website, “Momentum is a people-powered, vibrant movement. We aim to transform the Labour Party, our communities and Britain in the interests of the many, not the few.” Founded by Jon Lansman and others in 2015, it arose out of the successful campaign to get Jeremy Corbyn elected as Labour Leader. From the beginning, as well as being evidence of a new type of politics in terms of policy and approach, Momentum exemplified the importance of personal data to modern politics.

An awful lot of bullshit has been talked about data and politics in the UK – witness the investigation into political parties’ use of personal data announced with great fanfare by the Open Rights Group, which culminated in a hilariously anti-climactic report where ORG had to admit that the worst thing they could say about political data exploitation is how ineffective it is. Ignore the Guardian headlines and Liz Denham’s interviews on Channel 4 News, Momentum is a real example of the power of data. It is a political movement built on a mailing list. After Corbyn was elected, the founders of Momentum used the lists of Corbyn supporters created during his leadership campaign as the foundation of the organisation. This isn’t my opinion – it’s what Momentum says about itself: “The company was originally incorporated at the very beginning of Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 leadership bid to collect and manage the data collected during that election and in order to maximise the retention of data for use after the leadership campaign to benefit the movement which would arise from it.

A few days ago, the National Coordinating Committee for Momentum held elections. Lansman, who was previously chair of the organisation, didn’t stand for reelection, so Momentum is under new management. However, it is not entirely in power and its first meeting, the NCG sought to rectify that. According to Labour List, “members voted in favour of putting Momentum’s data – currently owned by Lansman, who is no longer on the ruling body – in their own hands. They are confident that this handover will take place.

Technically, the data isn’t owned by Lansman. Momentum’s website says that it is owned by ‘Jeremy for Labour Ltd’, a company that provides data services for Momentum. Strictly speaking, this isn’t true either: the company is called ‘Momentum Information’ but it’s not hard to understand why the Momentum web people are confused because the company does have a habit of changing its name. It started as ‘Jeremy Corbyn Campaign 2015 (Supporters) Ltd’, then became ‘Momentum Campaign Ltd’, then transmogrified into ‘Jeremy for Labour Ltd’ in 2016, finally blossoming into ‘Momentum Information Ltd’ on 30th December 2019. It’s like a really boring version of Doctor Who. However, when you look at the current directors of Momentum Information, there’s only one, and it’s Jon Lansman.

Momentum isn’t a company or a political party. It is an “unincorporated association of individual members” with a written constitution, run by the NCG. According to their website, the data owned by Momentum Information “cannot be shared with any organisation, including Momentum” but “the privacy policy does permit Jeremy for Labour Ltd to inform people of campaigns and activities linked to Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign aims, such as the activities of Momentum which grew out of Jeremy’s leadership bid and shares its aims and values“. Momentum is in the astonishing position of being a member organisation which – as far as I can see – does not know who all of its members are and is not allowed to contact them directly without (effectively) Lansman’s cooperation. It’s possible that by now the unincorporated association has accumulated some of its own data, but it seems clear that Lansman has kept control of the data mother lode, and while he no longer chairs Momentum, the data gives him huge power over it.

If Momentum members have access to the data held by Momentum Information and they try to use it, that would be a criminal offence unless Lansman or his representatives authorise it. This is why there needs to be a ‘handover’. Of course, Lansman may well accede to the democratic vote of the NCG and give them the data. I am an evil centrist who doesn’t really understand the internal politics of Momentum (I rejoined Labour solely to vote for whichever of Keir Starmer or Lisa Nandy looked more likely to beat Rebecca Long-Bailey), so I don’t know what Lansman’s move will be. The funny thing is, purely in Data Protection terms, it’s probably unlawful for him to disclose the data without a lot more work.

I’m basing this on the information Momentum itself has put into the public domain, so if I have this wrong, it’s because I’ve been misinformed by them. But that sentence in the company structures section of their website isn’t ambiguous: the privacy policy doesn’t allow sharing with Momentum. If that’s what the people on whatever database Momentum Information controls were told, it would be a significant breach of fairness and transparency for their data to be shared in a way that contradicts this. Never mind that many Momentum members might be fine with it, the transparency problem has to be overcome, and we’re talking about many thousands of people needing to be contacted.

Being a member of Momentum plainly reflects your political opinion, so Momentum Information needs a special categories exemption to disclose the data. The most obvious one would be “processing is carried out in the course of its legitimate activities with appropriate safeguards by a foundation, association or any other not-for-profit body with a political, philosophical, religious or trade union aim and on condition that the processing relates solely to the members or to former members of the body or to persons who have regular contact with it in connection with its purposes and that the personal data are not disclosed outside that body without the consent of the data subjects“. If you read all the way to the end, you can see the problem – it explicitly rules out disclosure. There are only two other possibilities – substantial public interest or explicit consent. I don’t think that there’s a *public* interest here, just a significant private one, but if you disagree, a controller can only use substantial public interest if they can meet a condition from Schedule 1 of the Data Protection Act 2018. Feel free to read them if you want to, but I can tell you that none of them apply. The NCG vote is irrelevant – unless the relevant people consent to the disclosure, it’s unlawful even if Lansman wants it to happen.

I said I don’t know Lansman’s motives here, but surely none of this is an accident. Whether or not he chairs the unincorporated association, it strikes me that Lansman still holds the reins. Momentum is probably nothing unless it can talk to its members, and right now, only a mass consent gathering exercise will allow that. Of course, Momentum’s account of the company structures may be incorrect and there’s a loophole somewhere. But forget the guff about micro targeting and brainwashing by Facebook, if there is a standoff between the NCG and Lansman, it’s about who controls a major political movement, and it’s based solely on access to personal data. The Information Commissioner will run a mile from intervening, as they always do when faced with issues in Labour and Left politics, but it’s an awesome demonstration of the power of data.