Leaked notes reveal Labour ignored legal advice over new membership

Harriet Harman

A Labour committee voted not to undertake extra due diligence on voters in its leadership election last week, against the advice of party lawyers, according to leaked meeting notes obtained by the Guardian.

Party lawyers had supported an extra stage of verification in order to protect Labour against a legal challenge by unsuccessful candidates, saying this would put the party in a good position to say its election process had been “robust”.

Under the legal advice, people known to have voted for other parties according to Labour canvass returns would have been asked to confirm again that they really did support its aims and values. But the party’s procedure committee voted to take no action.

Over the past few weeks, the contest has been dogged by allegations that some of the people who have paid £3 to become a registered supporter are actually backers of other parties trying to influence the result in favour of the frontrunner, Jeremy Corbyn.

Notes of the committee last week said that the lawyers had proposed that applicants who had voted for other parties be emailed and asked to explain why they were now supporting Labour. “Legal advice is supportive of us using our own canvass data in this way ... good position to say we have been robust.”

There is particular concern in Labour circles that the decision to ignore legal advice is likely to make the party more vulnerable to a legal challenge especially if the result is close.

Interim leader Harriet Harman, former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett, general secretary Iain McNicol, senior MP Jon Ashworth and trade union representative on the national executive committee Keith Birch, were all in favour of more due diligence in line with the legal advice.

However, they were effectively outvoted by other NEC representatives Paddy Lillis, Jim Kennedy, Diana Holland and Ann Black, who objected to the idea that the voting data could be out of date.

The committee was split with four voting each way and the motion to follow the legal advice was not carried.

It has previously been reported that Harman at one point considered pausing the contest and led an attempt to stave off the threat of judicial reviews that was blocked by trade union representatives supportive of Corbyn.

About 400,000 people have become eligible to vote since the general election, swelling the electorate to 600,000, and putting immense pressure on the party’s ability to check out their backgrounds by trawling social media for any contradictory political statements they might have made.

The surge appears to have been driven by enthusiasm for the candidacy of Corbyn, the most leftwing of the four candidates, but there are serious worries at the party’s headquarters that checks being carried out on voters are insufficient to withstand legal challenge from one of the unsuccessful candidates.

Labour’s press office has repeatedly insisted that its election is “robust” but minutes of last week’s party’s internal procedure committee appear to undermine this claim.

The notes also record that the party is currently “inundated” by the number of new supporters who need extra verification. It said the current checking teams were working but overstretched and the panel of senior Labour officials making the final decisions has had to be doubled from three to six members to cope with the pressure.

A Labour spokeswoman denied that legal advice had been sought as a result of the worries over “entryism” from the left and right. “The party’s focus is on making sure that the rules are fully complied with. As we said last week, we have taken legal advice to make sure that the rules are being complied with and that all due diligence as possible was being done,” she said.

She repeated that the party had “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 do not share Labour’s aims and values will be denied a vote.”

Earlier this month, Tory minister Tim Loughton was caught in the party’s vetting process attempting to register to vote for Labour’s new leader, and a number of Twitter users who took part in an online campaign to persuade Conservative party supporters to sign up and vote for Corbyn in an attempt to damage Labour’s electoral chances posted pictures of ballot papers they claim to have been sent.

Among at least 1,800 people who have already been weeded out as infiltrators, there were 150 people who stood as candidates for the Green party, 92 members and candidates with the Trade Unionist and Socialist coalition (Tusc) and 18 senior figures from Left Unity.

Corbyn’s candidacy appears to have been boosted not just by support from registered supporters, of whom there are just under 100,000, but new supporters affiliated to trade unions who make up 180,000 of the electorate.
Some Labour MPs have called for an end to complaints about the process, pointing out that entryists would be a mere tiny percentage of the overall numbers voting and arguing the party should embrace the fact that so many new people have signed up. However, others have been more critical.

Ian Austin, Labour MP and former minister, said the contest had been a ridiculous and a total shambles and he knew of some Ukip and Socialist Workers party supporters who had signed up in his area. He added that it was a “ludicrous system that is open to such abuse” and longstanding members were threatening to leave as result.

Earlier this week, Ben Bradshaw, a former Labour cabinet minister who is standing to be deputy leader, said he had found that one in 10 of the registered supporters in his own constituency were actually “strongly against the Labour party”.

He told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In my own constituency, which is probably the best organised Labour party in the country, we have been through all of the new registered supporters and we have cross-referenced them with our voting records.

“Consistently, 10% of the new registered supporters have always said they had been strongly against Labour. They had never voted Labour, they had always voted for another party.

“That’s a potential problem for the party. The party has assured all of us – the leader and the deputy leader candidates – that it has a system in place to weed these people out. We have to take those assurances at face value, but you will know that three of the leadership candidates wrote last week expressing this concern. The party needs to be confident that its processes are robust.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Patrick Wintour and Rowena Mason, for The Guardian on Wednesday 19th August 2015 22.32 Europe/London

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