Restricting Labour Members’ Voting Rights is an Insult to Democracy

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Labour’s leadership election misery continues as the Court of Appeal overrules the High Court’s ruling and thus upholds the Labour NEC’s (National Executive Committee) original decision to disenfranchise from the election anyone who joined after 12th June, unless they paid £25. This means that 130,000 new members are unable to vote in the upcoming Labour leadership. The original High Court intervention into party politics was unprecedented and could’ve dramatically changed the outcome of the Labour leadership election and the fate of the Labour party itself. In a time of political disillusionment and disempowerment, Labour must ask what party they want to be: one which serves the people, supported through a democratic mandate, or a party which governs the people by telling them it knows best (hoping the people will do as they’re told). The issue of whether the original High Court decision was justifiable must be looked through a neutral and legal lens. Members who support and oppose Corbyn’s leadership would both be equally biased in their conclusion and therefore must leave political convictions to the side in order to judge the fairness and rationality of the High Court decision (and, thus, whether the Court of Appeal’s decision to overturn the High Court one was correct or not).

In the High Court decision, Mr Justice Hickinbottom ruled against the NEC and stated he was not ‘convinced that the contrary is arguable’ and the more you delve into the rulebook, the more the 6 month requirement seems indefensible. The 5 Labour members who took the case to the court had a ‘common understanding, as reflected in the rulebook, that if they joined the party prior to the election process commencing, as new members they would be entitled to vote’. Although the rulebook states the NEC decide ‘the timetable for the election, including any freeze date’ and the fact the NEC have the power to uphold the rulebook they have clearly tried to manipulate the rules to suit their own interests in trying to create favourable circumstances for the challenger. Whilst doing this they have broken contracts with the 130,000 or so new members in order to silence, they assume, mostly Corbyn voters. The NEC’s power, although legitimate, broke contracts with new members who were promised that they would be an integral part of the Labour movement, which includes the right to vote on the leader and shape their party’s future. The NEC has tried to manipulate a clause unused to this degree and therefore it is only right that the High Court had intervened to reinstate democracy and make sure the contracts are not broken. The NEC clearly had their own interests at heart and arguably a neutral arbitrator was needed to make sure even a political party follows their due process. Some people have argued that the breaking of contract should be permitted because of the hard left infiltration, concerned with Corbyn’s re-election rather than the party’s long-term success. Nevertheless the importance of contracts should not be underestimated. In Hobbes’ Leviathan they are one of the means by which we build trust between human beings and allow us to stop being so individualistic. Legally it seems the NEC’s retrospective freeze date was unjustified meaning the High Court’s intervention to allow the neutral interpretation of the rules was right but it is sad that a party claiming to promote democracy and equality had to suffer an external ruling to reinstate democracy and equality within itself. Of course, unfortunately this ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeals and the NEC has not made a new ruling to overturn the old one so true democracy and equality have been removed from the Labour party once more.

The High Court’s ruling would have allowed for at least 130,000 more voters in the upcoming leadership election. At at time of decreasing turnout, at a time when the public are disillusioned by conventional politics, fed up of being ignored and left behind, this court ruling would’ve been a victory for democracy and would’ve brought politics where it should be, back to the people and set free from the Labour establishment. Bending the rules to suit the Parliamentary Labour Party is an example of why so many people distrust politicians and feel separate from the elites. The attempt to excommunicate the hard left from the election is an abuse of power no matter what your ideological conviction, contracts must be kept. Ironically as the Labour establishment try to rid themselves of Corbyn more people seem to become unequivocally devoted to him. Corbyn’s new politics has brought a new, once disillusioned, wing to Labour’s membership and the retrospective freeze date was a devious means to silence many of them. Instead of appealing the court ruling; the anti-Corbyn members of Labour should have tried to harness the power of the new membership instead of silencing it, they should be trying to win them over with a sensible argument and reasoning. These are not a bunch of delusional ‘lefties’ who do not think about electability, in reality they are ordinary people fed up with the status quo who want new solutions to ongoing problems. They feel a need to support Corbyn because they see no other person who is standing up for their interests and now the manipulation of the rules is actually strengthening the views of people who support Corbyn and the pro-Corbyn camp is growing. The new strength of the grassroots is unseen in modern politics and at a time of apathy it can only be seen as a victory for democracy. The Labour establishment should try to use it as a distinct advantage rather than try to throw it away.

Like Corbyn or loathe him, the voice of a potential 130,000 should not be silenced just because you dislike what they are saying. The new membership are flocking for various reasons. But even if Corbyn was the only reason people were joining, who are the Labour establishment to clamp down on the will of the people? If you are going to preach democracy and equality it must be for every member, even if you dislike their views. The Labour establishment may have allowed him on the ballot paper in order to stop the party dividing, but it seems will at whatever cost try to remove him.

Owen Smith is going to have to work hard to win over the votes and prove he is a leader for the people, made even harder by the NEC’s appeal. The contest could be drawn out longer meaning no accountability for the current government, which allows the Conservatives greater breathing space at a point when efficient scrutiny is needed more than ever. The tensions and rifts in the Labour party have never been so apparent and at a time that the Conservative party should be on their knees the Labour party have decided to have a fight amongst themselves. This infighting has however made Corbyn arguably unelectable but not due to his own policies. How can you create a competent government when 172 MPs have no confidence in your leadership? The ruling is likely to give Corbyn a landslide but Theresa May an even bigger one. Owen Smith however is unlikely to fare much better in a future general election. Labour have showed a lack of competence and the incredibly disjointed and divided party looks to be in tatters. The job of closing the gap between Labour’s membership and establishment is now insurmountable and a Labour split is becoming more likely unless the party starts to be more representative of its members.

Labour may have to swallow their pride and take a leaf out of the Conservative’s book for its own survival and look into how they elect their leaders. It is not unimaginable for such an issue as this to crop up again and Labour will be in the same turmoil as it is now.

Regardless of whether the new members (who the NEC tried to disenfranchise) are joining to help rescue their beleaguered leadership or to help push Corbyn out the door (it’s estimated that around 60% of the new members are Corbyn supporters), the actions by the NEC to try and manipulate the rules instead of winning over members exemplifies what is wrong about the politics of today. The High Court’s intervention was sad but right; contracts cannot be broken to silence new members. It is a shame that the Court of Appeals didn’t hold up this justified intervention. The NEC’s behaviour is likely to disillusion more of the public/membership and push more people to more radical views due to the fact that they are not listened to. So the cycle will continue, until the Labour establishment begin to work with Corbyn instead of against him.

2 Comments

  1. Have you considered that although the labour hierarchy are violating basic democracy and the in fighting this has caused is preventing proper government scrutiny at a crucial time, that this is actually beneficial in the long term because it means Owen Swith is more likelly to win. This outcome is more likelly to preserve the Labour Party therefore giving a democratic outlet to its membership and other supporters in the future and perhaps as part of government.

    • I agree getting rid of Corbyn could unite the party but at what cost? Surely the Labour hierarchy should be trying to win over the 130,000 rather than silencing them. I struggle with the idea that the Labour hierarchy should determine what they think Labour should stand for rather than the membership, politics is meant to be about the voice of the people and robust debate yet the labour establishment have decided their view is some how better and will not hear an alternative. I understand your point on the long term goals but overall I think contracts and rules must be kept because once you make one concession when does it stop?

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