The Labour leadership candidate Owen Smith has called for an extension of the contest after a high court judge ruled the party’s government body had illegally barred 130,000 people who recently became party members from voting in the leadership election.
The decision by the party’s national executive committee (NEC) that only members who joined before 12 January were eligible had been challenged by five people who were excluded as a result.
A barrister representing the group has accused the NEC of unlawfully freezing them and many others out of the contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Smith.
A decision to allow the excluded members to vote was seen as more likely to benefit the incumbent, Corbyn, in the increasingly bad-tempered leadership race.
But Smith said that in light of the ruling, the date for the leadership poll should be extended. “The Labour party is the greatest agent for social change this country has ever known and I have always welcomed growth of our party and wider movement. Now many more members will have the chance to vote in the leadership election, I am today calling for an extension of the timetable so that all members have the opportunity to engage with Jeremy and me before making their choice,” he said.
The cutoff date for members was decided at the end of a long and fractious NEC meeting last month. Corbyn had already left to greet supporters outside, having clinched the vote to allow him on to the ballot paper without gathering nominations from MPs.
Both Corbyn’s supporters and his opponents had been actively recruiting party members in recent months, helping Labour’s membership rise to more than 500,000 – higher than the peak under Tony Blair.
But the NEC’s decision – which Corbyn supporters claimed was made after some members had to leave the meeting for personal reasons – would have disenfranchised about 130,000 recent recruits.
It is unclear what proportion of these new members are likely to back the leader, but there is a widely held assumption on both sides of the battle that most were likely to be pro-Corbyn.
On Monday, Mr Justice Hickinbottom ruled that the NEC was not within its rights to impose such a restriction.
In his written judgment, he 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 entered into the contract between members. For those reasons the claimants’ claim succeeds.”
He said that a refusal to allow them to vote was an unlawful breach of contract.
The five members, whose legal fees were crowd-funded, had claimed that Labour’s rulebook made no provision for treating them differently and none had ever been made in any of the party’s previous leadership elections.
They also argued that when they joined, the Labour website and other communications said they would be “a key part of the team”, and thus eligible to vote in any leadership election.
When the NEC decided that only members who had joined before 12 January could vote, it also allowed newly registered supporters, a lesser category of member, to vote in the election at a cost of £25.
Stephen Cragg QC, appearing for the five, asked Hickinbottom to declare that party rules had been misapplied and that the five are entitled to vote in the poll.
Four named members challenged the decision: Christine Evangelou, the Rev Edward Leir, Hannah Fordham and Chris Granger. The fifth was named in the court papers only as FM because he is under 18.
The judge has ordered the NEC to repay three of the claimants’ £25 fee, which they had paid on top of their membership dues in order to vote in the contest.
Mick Whelan, the general secretary of the Aslef union, said: “This is a victory for democracy, and a victory for common sense. The judge could see that the decision not to allow these five members – and the tens of thousands on whose behalf they brought this action – [a vote] was wrong in principle and wrong in law.”
Hickinbottom granted the NEC leave to appeal, although he said he was doing so reluctantly.
“I have taken the firm decision that the rules do not give NEC the power to restrict the voting rights of members as it purported to do,” he said. “I am not sure I am convinced that the contrary is arguable.”
He said the court of appeal would hear a case on Thursday if such an appeal is lodged on time.
This article was written by Haroon Siddique and Heather Stewart, for theguardian.com on Monday 8th August 2016 16.11 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010