Harriet Harman has been forced to publicly defend Labour’s handling of its increasingly fractious leadership contest as the party came under attack from Andy Burnham’s campaign and supporters of the frontrunner, Jeremy Corbyn.
The acting Labour leader stressed that the outcome of the ballot due next month would be final and promised the party’s rules would be applied in a “rigorous, fair, robust and even-handed way”. She said: “Whoever is elected, they will be legally elected and the result will stand.”
She said it was “dishonest and shameful” for Conservatives to sign up to vote, many in the belief that a Corbyn victory would harm Labour’s electoral chances, but stressed her determination that only Labour supporters would be able to vote in the contest.
Harman was speaking after criticism of the contest intensified on Friday. Burnham’s campaign gave a heavy hint that it may challenge the outcome of the election if Corbyn wins, given the scale of feared infiltration by Tory voters.
In a letter to the party’s general secretary, Ian McNicol, Burnham’s campaign chief, Michael Dugher, wrote: “We are concerned that given the party’s limited resources and the effort required to investigate applicants, this could result in the integrity of the contest being called into question, and the outcome subject to legal challenge.”
Burnham’s complaint came amid reports that leadership contenders will meet senior party figures on Tuesday and demand that efforts to weed out infiltrators are stepped up to prevent Jeremy Corbyn winning the vote
The meeting will be used by Corbyn’s opponents to demand better vetting of the tens of thousands of people who have flocked to join the party in recent weeks, the Times claimed.
It also followed complaints on social media with the hashtag #LabourPurge by hundreds of new members and supporters – most seemingly planning to vote for Corbyn – that they have been barred from taking part.
Some, including the comedian Jeremy Hardy, believe there is an orchestrated campaign within the party hierarchy to exclude as many Corbyn supporters as possible and minimise his chances of winning.
In a strong rebuttal of Burnham’s warning, a source in the Corbyn camp said: “If Andy Burnham has any evidence for his claim of thousands of Tory infiltrators he should produce it now rather than generate a general smear of a democratic process and by implication undermine the party’s staff. Andy Burnham should concentrate on fighting to win rather than seeking excuses for not winning.”
John Woodcock, the chairman of the Progress group and a supporter of Liz Kendall, has suggested there is a “highly organised” attempt to play up the idea that there has been a purge of voters on the left in order to pave the way for a purge of those on the right of the party if Corbyn wins.
He said: “Councillors and MPs to whom I have spoken are concerned that the hard-left is crying foul about a purge now to prepare the ground for a mass deselection of elected representatives if it wins control. The false notion that the party’s process of vetting the electorate for supporters of other parties constitutes a purge is intended to muddy the waters for the genuine purge of longstanding councillors and MPs that is to come.”
The criticism from Burnham’s camp and Corbyn supporters raises the possibility that there could be a legal challenge from either if the other wins.
Despite Harman’s assurances that everything is under control, the Guardian understands there is a mounting disquiet among staffers at Labour HQ about the state of the contest. A party insider said almost everyone is now involved in the scramble to verify people and legal counsel are in near-constant attendance.
The party decided to start verifying that new members and supporters were genuine after the numbers registering to vote in the contest surged from 200,000 at the time of the election to more than 600,000 once the deadline for signing up had passed.
Causing the most concern is the group of 120,000 people who have paid £3 to take part, called registered supporters. The 190,000 trade union supporters and almost 300,000 full members are less of a worry.
An initial hunt for “entryists” found 1,200 who ought to be barred, including Conservative, Green and Socialist Workers party candidates, but the verification process is still continuing and will carry on even after people have cast votes.
Labour has dozens of officials working to try to spot infiltrators from their comments on social media and two panels of three people making final adjudications, but leaked meeting notes of its procedure committee show the party has been inundated and the system is overstretched.
The insider said it seemed the the scale of the worries about the registered supporters group was so large that it could potentially impact the result in the final round between Corbyn and the second-placed candidate.
Lord Falconer, the shadow lord chancellor, who was working for the Burnham campaign, is now working for the party in order to help ensure the contest is not open to legal challenges.
It is understood Falconer and senior Labour officials returned to discussions on Friday afternoon about a way to use voting history to check the authenticity of new supporters because of the growing scale of the verification challenge – despite this having previously been rejected by the party’s procedure committee.
In an attempt to calm concerns, McNicol is writing to constituency Labour parties to defend the contest, telling them: “I am confident that we are delivering a fair and robust leadership.”
Yvette Cooper’s camp responded to the Burnham campaign’s warning letter about the contest by with a statement that said: “Yvette is focusing on winning arguments and votes, not legal challenges. Yvette will continue to fight for every vote in this election, because there is so much at stake for the Labour party and the country.”
But neither Cooper’s nor Burnham’s camp has explicitly ruled out mounting a legal challenge in the event of being narrowly beaten by Corbyn.
A spokesman for Corbyn’s campaign criticised other candidates for being engaged in “purely internal procedural obsession” which falls short of the debate the party needs.
In relation to Burnham’s letter, the spokesman said:“This latest internally faced intervention is an attempt to distract the leadership election on to process rather than real political issues, such Corbyn’s commitment to move on from the legacy of the Iraq war with an apology. This is because he is setting the political agenda.
“While some issues have been raised, we do have confidence in the management of the process by the elected members of Labour’s NEC [national executive committee] and the general secretary.
“The party’s procedures committee will deal with process, and campaigns can and should raise their issues with them directly. But the candidates need to face towards a country that feels insufficiently connected to our party.”
Although it has confidence in the verification process, the Corbyn campaign has asked rejected supporters to get in touch to see if it can help. One Labour backer, Matt Beresford, is also collecting complaints, and said about 350 people had been in touch with him since Thursday morning claiming their exclusions were unfair. He stressed that his findings were not scientific but the submissions were primarily from Corbyn supporters and about 60 were from members.
Kate Hoey, the Labour MP for Vauxhall, said there was a danger that “some very unfair decisions are being taken that rule out decent Labour supporters from getting a vote. The party has reneged on natural justice with no appeals and we will pay the price when the election is over.”
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