Labour is being sued by a group of its members over the decision to exclude 130,000 people who joined the party since January from being able to vote in its leadership contest.
Harrison Grant, a London law firm, issued proceedings against Labour and its general secretary, Iain McNicol, on behalf of the members, who are crowdfunding to pay for their action.
In a statement, the group said: “We have called on the party to reconsider its decision, but it has not proven forthcoming. We believe the only way we can retrieve our rights is by taking the party to court.
“Harrison Grant Solicitors have issued proceedings on our behalf and we hope it will be heard very soon.”
Anyone who joined afterwards can now only vote if they have paid £25 to be a registered supporter, or if they are registered through an affiliated union.
Kate Harrison, of Harrison Grant, said: “The basis of the claim is that [the members’] entitlement to vote in the leadership election is part of their contract with the Labour party. They all joined when the Labour party website said in its terms ‘you will be eligible to vote in leadership elections’.”
The claimants have applied for the legal action to be expedited so that it is heard in the high court before 4 August. A Labour party spokesperson said: “We will vigorously defend the decision of the NEC.”
Corbyn appeared to give his support to those challenging the membership cutoff in an interview with the Sunday Mirror last week.
“I’m very concerned. We haven’t heard the end of this. A lot of people joined the party in the past six months and will be extremely annoyed,” he said at the time. “They joined because they want to be involved in the party and they’re not being allowed to. There may be a legal move but nothing has been decided yet. Not by me anyway.”
Some Corbyn supporters believe that the excluded members are backing Corbyn by 4 to 1 and believe the legal challenge has a good chance of success.
Corbyn is the clear favourite to win the contest. A survey released on Monday by the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University found that 60% of Labour councillors in 250 marginal constituencies were backing Smith, but they expected that members and registered supporters in their wards will favour Corbyn.
The legal action is separate from another court case that is challenging the national executive committee’s decision to put Corbyn automatically on the ballot paper without needing to collect signatures from MPs.
The action, funded by party donor Michael Foster, is to ascertain that the rules were properly applied.
That case is due to be heard on Tuesday, but Corbyn is not expected to attend the high court despite successfully getting himself named as a second defendant.
The party’s NEC heard three contradicting pieces of legal advice, including from Michael Mansfield QC, which found only challengers needed nominations, and another from James Goudie QC, which found all candidates should seek nominations from MPs.
The decisions by various people within Labour to resort to legal action is a sign of the high stakes and factionalism gripping the party since it became clear Corbyn would face a leadership challenge.
As tensions continued to run high, McNicol, the general secretary, ruled on Monday that Labour members who are abusive to others will be prevented from voting in the leadership contest.
The general secretary said Labour would issue bans because it was not enough simply to criticise some of the aggressive and intimidating behaviour that has soured the contest so far. “Words of condemnation are meaningless unless they are backed up by action,” he said.
People should report abusive behaviour to a party email address, he said, adding that those who are found to have broken the rules will not be allowed to vote.
“I want to be clear, if you are a member and you engage in abusive behaviour towards other members, it will be investigated and you could be suspended while that investigation is carried out,” he said. “If you are a registered supporter or affiliated supporter and you engage in abusive behaviour, you will not get a vote in this leadership election.”
Labour has already decided to suspend local party meetings while the contest is going on, apart from those to make supporting nominations for leader.
“For a fair debate to take place, people must be able to air their views in an atmosphere of respect. They shouldn’t be shouted down, they shouldn’t be intimidated and they shouldn’t be abused, either in meetings or online,” McNicol said. “Put plainly, there is simply too much of it taking place and it needs to stop.”
Corbyn also addressed the problem of abuse on Saturday, telling members: “I know some people are angry at the actions of some MPs … but where we disagree in the Labour party, we settle it through democratic means … Not coups, not intimidation and not abuse.”
Corbyn has reported receiving death threats as tensions over the future of the party have boiled over into aggression and intimidation.
Labour MPs have also complained that they are being subjected to abuse for supporting people standing against Corbyn. Angela Eagle, who stepped aside for Smith, had a brick thrown through the window of her office building and received threats that forced her to cancel an event.
This article was written by Rowena Mason Deputy political editor, for theguardian.com on Monday 25th July 2016 15.10 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010