Five new members of the Labour Party have just defeated the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) in the High Court.
In what could be a major blow to the Labour coup and leadership candidate Owen Smith, the judge ruled in favour of allowing up to 130,000 new members a vote. These members are thought to be more likely to support Corbyn.
In a separate development, one of the five new members representing the disenfranchised in court has brought an additional challenge to the NEC on the grounds of age discrimination. Under-18 Labour members, like ‘FM’ who is mounting the challenge, have no way of registering to vote, despite being able to join the party at 14.
The main challenge overturns a controversial NEC rule which banned members who had joined the party after 12 January 2016 from voting. The case was quickly brought before the Royal Courts of Justice so the excluded members could be added before the voting lists were finalised on 8 August.
The judge has ordered the party to pay back the £25 to new members who paid again to vote as ‘registered supporters’.
Over 130,000 people have joined since the coup’s inception alone and are believed to be predominantly supporters of the incumbent, so critics considered the voting ban to be anti-Corbyn gerrymandering. Indeed, the NEC has not provided any valid reason for discouraging and attempting to retroactively disenfranchise, rather than welcome, new party members.
With this in mind, the ruling appears to be a huge boost for Corbyn and another defeat for the coup. Last week, millionaire Michael Foster lost his legal attempt to prevent Labour members from being able to vote for the incumbent in the leadership election, by preventing Corbyn’s name from automatically being on the ballot.
For Hannah Fordham, one of the five new members, the reason for the NEC’s decision is ultimately irrelevant. Her campaign is an appeal to democracy and fairness:
Regardless of who you support in the leadership contest, or whether you are even a Labour member, I am sure you will agree that it is incredibly unfair to all the members, around 130,000 of them, who joined since 12 January to have their voting rights taken away.
Labour members who joined after 12 January were promised a vote in the leadership election when they handed over their membership fees:
As a member, you’ll be a key part of the team. You’ll be eligible to vote in leadership elections.
Representing the new members, Stephen Cragg QC argued:
They paid their dues and found to their surprise they had been excluded from the present election.
We say they have been wrongly excluded by breach of contract from the right to vote. We say there is nothing in the Labour Party rule book that suggests a limit on the members who can take part in the leadership election.
Joining the party involved a transaction for the now disenfranchised members. They were paying not only to support the party, but also to have their voice heard within the Labour movement. Anything less surely constitutes a breach of contract.
The party claimed that the six-month freeze date was “normal for internal selections”. But Cragg argued in court that no prior leadership contest had set a retroactive cut-off date for members to qualify to vote.
Up to a quarter of registered supporters, who paid £25 for a vote within a 48-hour window, have been banned from the Labour leadership election, with the party keeping up to £1,250,000 in voting fees – leaving a bitter taste for those rejected.
The High Court’s decision to expand the democratic exercise should be welcomed by all. Supporters handed over fees for a vote in any leadership election. To remove that right was not only a breach of contract, but an unjustified suppression of democracy.
But considering Corbyn was the clear favourite even before this High Court ruling, it may be difficult for Smith to welcome the result.
This article was updated at 11:30am on 8 August to include the judge’s ruling on the £25 supporters’ fee.
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