A shady Labour Party committee has decided to figuratively p*ss members money away, by appealing a court ruling from 8 August that anyone who joined the party after 12 January should be allowed to vote in the leadership election. And the party’s likelihood of winning is minimal.
The little-known National Executive Committee (NEC) subgroup, the ‘Labour Procedures Committee’, has taken the decision after a High Court judge agreed with five members who brought a case against the freezing of members’ right to vote.
Mr Justice Hickinbottom’s ruling could mean anywhere between 126,592 and 150,000 additional people may now have a vote, according to different estimates. This is likely to work in Jeremy Corbyn’s favour, as it’s reasonable to think that most members who joined after 12 January did so to support the Labour leader.
Fighting for a vote
In the hearing on 8 August, the claimants (four adults and one minor) argued that the six-month membership condition imposed by the NEC was in breach of the Labour Party’s constitution as set out in its 2016 rule book. This would then make the NEC in breach of the contract that mutually binds members of the party.
The Labour Party, represented by its General Secretary Iain McNicol, argued that the freeze date is also written into the rule book. Therefore, the NEC has a right to use it as they see fit.
But Hickinbottom disagreed with McNicol’s assertions and ruled in favour of the members. And it’s the wording of this ruling which makes it highly unlikely that the NEC appeal will be upheld.
In summing up, Hickinbottom said:
At the time each of the Claimants joined the Party, it was the common understanding as reflected in the Rule Book that, if they joined the Party prior to the election process commencing, as new members they would be entitled to vote in any leadership contest. That was the basis upon which each Claimant joined the party; and the basis upon which they each entered into the contract between members inter se. For those reasons, the Claimants’ claim succeeds. For the Party to refuse to allow the Claimants to vote in the current leadership election, because they have not been members since 12 January 2016, would be unlawful as in breach of contract.
The detail contained in the documentation of the court hearing sheds further light onto what went on at the beginning of the Labour leadership contest.
Game playing by the NEC?
One specific detail of interest is in the original proposals for the election, which were outlined on 12 July – the day that the NEC decided to allow Corbyn to be on the ballot without nomination. In these proposals, it was originally asserted that individuals were to be given seven days to become registered supporters. This was rejected and changed to the 18-20 July window.
There was also an amendment tabled to the proposals for the rules of the election. This was that, instead of the six-month membership freeze, there should be a cut-off date of 24 June. This was rejected by the NEC outright, and it is unclear who actually tabled the amendment in the first place. It would appear that certain quarters of the NEC were attempting to make the rules surrounding voting eligibility fair, while others were intent on making them as stringent as possible.
But the court case also highlights the NEC’s apparent flip-flopping around the 12 January date. The claimants’ solicitor argued that the freeze date was fixed for, not 12 January, but 12 July 2016. That is the date consistently referred to in NEC documents as “the freeze date”. It was also confirmed as the “freeze date” in the response of the party’s solicitors on 20 July 2016 to the letter sent by the claimants before legal action was taken.
Crucially, Hickinbottom outlined the wording of the Labour Party website, insomuch that until 13 July it stated:
As a member, you’ll be a key part of our election winning team. You’ll be eligible to vote in leadership elections, you can help shape party policy, you can attend local meetings and you can even stand as a candidate.
It is this which is considered the breach of contract. But the Labour Party’s NEC seemingly does not see it like this, and the appeal against the decision is to be heard on 11 August. A spokesperson for the NEC said:
The Procedures Committee of the NEC has decided that the Labour Party will appeal [against] this ruling in order to defend the NEC right, as Labour’s governing body, to uphold the rule book, including the use of freeze dates.
A committee within a committee
This Procedures Committee (which was also responsible for the crackdown on the use of what it deemed ‘abusive’ language last month) is a subgroup of the NEC. Formed specifically for the leadership election, its members are:
- Iain McNicol, Labour Party General Secretary.
- Ann Black, NEC committee member, Chair of the Labour Party Disputes Panel.
- Keith Birch, Parliamentary Officer for Unison.
- Diana Holland, Labour Party Treasurer, Chair of the Business Board.
- Jim Kennedy, trade unionist, Chair of the Organisation Committee.
- Paddy Lillis, Chair of the NEC, Deputy General Secretary of USDAW.
- Ellie Reeves, Vice Chair of the NEC, sister of Rachel Reeves.
- Mary Turner, President of the GMB.
- Tom Watson MP.
- Margaret Beckett MP.
- Glenis Willmott MEP.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told BBC News that the decision to appeal the High Court ruling had been organised by a “small clique” on the committee that opposed Corbyn. He warned that it could cost the party “hundreds of thousands of pounds”, saying it was “an attack on the basic democratic rights of members in our party”.
The original decision to set a freeze date will indeed now cost the Labour Party money. Possibly millions, as Hickinbottom also ruled that anyone who was a member after 12 January but had to pay the £25 registered supporters fee to vote could request a refund.
But it’s the appeal of this decision by the Procedures Committee which is the most cynical part of this. The judge made his decision perfectly clear, and the evidence to uphold this decision is overwhelming. He cites a previous court case surrounding a ‘freeze date’ where the Labour Party (in its own defence) stated that:
What the imposition of the freeze date does is prevent additional individuals seeking to become members, especially by reason of encouragement or inducement by candidates, after the election process has begun.
The phrase ‘freeze date’ did not appear in the rule book before the 2016 version. It arrived with the rule changes introduced by Ed Miliband from the Collins Review into Labour Party reform. That review does not define the term either. Furthermore, the judge said “as a matter of ordinary language, “freeze date” suggests a crystallisation of matters from a current or future time, not a reversion to a past state of affairs.”
In my view, looking at the structures within the Party as set out in the Rule Book, it would be extremely surprising if the Rule Book gave the NEC the power to disenfranchise one-quarter of the Party membership as it purported to do. In my firm judgment, the Rule Book gives it no such power.
This appears a clear case of members of the Labour Procedures Committee attempting to do exactly that. Disenfranchising as many members as possible, in an attempt to knock Corbyn off course from remaining leader. But as is seemingly always the case with any decision made by the powers that be in Labour, it has failed. Miserably.
As with the rest of the coup attempt, the result will only be to cement more support for the leader, and make those trying to usurp him look even more preposterous than they already do.
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