More than 250 former candidates and members of rival leftwing parties have sought to be given a ballot paper in the Labour leadership election, raising concerns about the integrity of the ballot a week before the voting process begins.
Labour party officials believe 150 people who stood as candidates for the Green party, 92 members and candidates with the Trade Union and Socialist coalition (Tusc) and 18 senior figures in Left Unity have applied to be given a ballot paper in return for paying £3 to become a “registered supporter”.
Tusc is an electoral alliance that comprises the Socialist party, Socialist Workers party and prominent trades unionists. It was created by former RMT general secretary Bob Crow and is now led by Dave Nellist, a former Labour MP who was expelled for being a member of the Militant Tendency group.
Left Unity is a leftwing party founded by the filmmaker Ken Loach in 2013. It is alleged that current or former members of its national council and committees are among those who have signed up to vote in the Labour leadership election. Ballot papers are due to be sent out on 14 August.
It is not clear how many have signed up because they have decided to switch allegiances and want Jeremy Corbyn, the leftwinger who has become the unexpected frontrunner in the contest, to be elected Labour leader or retain ultimate loyalty to their previous party.
Those who wish to sign up as a registered supporter must agree with the declaration: “I support the aims and values of the Labour party, and I am not a supporter of any organisation opposed to it.”
Labour officials say it is extraordinary that so many Green candidates have apparently decided to abandon their party within weeks of the general election, and stressed they would be blocked from voting.
Labour insisted that simply because someone had been registered as a party supporter did not mean they will receive a ballot paper. But the revelations will be embarrassing for Labour, which introduced the quasi-membership category to broaden the party electorate, and not to create a vehicle for hard-left entryism – the process by which smaller parties try to change the direction of a larger one by joining it.
There has always been a branch of Trotskyism that has seen entryism as a legitimate tactic – to organise and recruit in the principal arena of political struggle. It took years for Labour to face up to the reality that the Militant Tendency had taken over the party’s youth wing before expulsions were begun under Neil Kinnock’s leadership in the 80s.
A Labour source said Corbyn was “sneaking in Green party members by the back door” and that a Corbyn surge would be “completely illegitimate and on a par [with], if not worse than, the Militant infiltration in the 80s”. The source said senior figures would expect an immediate independent inquiry to follow the result, due to be declared on 12 September, regardless of who wins.
A Green party spokesperson said it had made no attempt to influence the Labour leadership contest in any way, adding that the Greens “respect the democratic decision-making processes of other political parties”.
Salman Shaheen, the principal spokesperson for Left Unity, said Labour should be thrilled “that so many people wanted to join the party instead of stirring up a desperate panic over people who it thinks are too leftwing”.
“Left Unity is a party with many disaffected former Labour members. It’s no wonder that some people genuinely wanted to have a say in the Labour leadership contest,” he said. “They fully agree with the aims and values of the Labour party – it’s the Labour leadership who abandoned those values.”
Shaheen said it was “ludicrous” to suggest the Left Unity members were entryists and denied that the party had encouraged its members to sign up, adding: “The Labour party needs to realise that the 80s are over. The surge for Corbyn is a genuine popular movement that the Blairites can’t stop.”
Labour party membership currently stands at about 270,000, up 140,000 since the general alection. About 35,000 have paid £3 to become registered supporters and another 35,000 have signed up for a vote through their trade union.
The leaks suggest there is concern at the highest level of the party that the popular surge for Corbyn is not the only reason for the increase in party membership.
It does, however, look as if the party composition may be changing radically, even from 2010, when the majority of party members voted for David Miliband, the former foreign secretary. His brother Ed became leader due to greater support among trade unions.
In a further headache for Labour, it appears the party is not carrying out the same level of checks on new members who join at the full rate rather than registering as a union or party-registered supporter.
A Labour spokesperson said: “The Labour party has a robust system to prevent fraudulent or malicious applications and duplicate votes. All applications to join the Labour party as a member, affiliate or supporter are verified and those who are identified by our verification team as being candidates, members or supporters of another political party will be denied a vote.”
It was being stressed that nobody has yet received a ballot paper. Labour officials pointed out that simply because someone has not yet been informed they have failed the verification process does not ensure they will be given a right to vote. Receiving an automated email in response to registering online to vote did not mean someone is entitled to a ballot paper.
The party said it would also seek to ensure that anyone who registered to vote for £3 and then became a full member would not receive two votes.
However, there is a danger that the numbers joining means the verification system cannot operate effectively. Harriet Harman, the interim leader, has set up a verification system including listening to tape-recorded conversations of union affiliates being recruited. But the 30 or so staff may simply not have the capacity to deal with the numbers involved by the time ballot papers are due to be dispatched.
This implies the electorate in the leadership ballot is now well over 325,000, and likely to rise still further. Some MPs have already voiced fears that the system to elect the party leader, one of the most important tasks facing the membership, should never have been handed to people who have no long-term commitment to the party. The decision to change the rules was taken by Ed Miliband in 2014 as part of his effort to reform the party in the wake of allegation of ballot-rigging by Unite in the Falkirk constituency selection.
This article was written by Patrick Wintour and Frances Perraudin, for theguardian.com on Friday 7th August 2015 12.12 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010