Courtroom drama prompts confusion for Labour – and a legacy for future selections

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Jeremy Corbyn Owen Smith

One contest. Two candidates. Too many factions. Five frustrated members – and a whole lot of chaos.

The victory in the High Court victory of a group of Labour activists, who said they had been disenfranchised by the party’s decision to impose a January 12 cut-off to vote in the leadership contest, is another shock in a summer of high drama and low cunning.

It has dealt a blow to the supremacy of Labour’s ruling body, the national executive committee (NEC), and plunges into turmoil the battle for control of the party.

And, once again, Jeremy Corbyn sails serenely on confident in the knowledge neither plotters nor lawyers have been able to dislodge him from his status as front-runner.

Make no mistake, Corbyn has scored a massive victory today with the High Court ruling that the NEC was wrong to deprive of a vote members who joined after the freeze date. The case was brought by just five individuals but could force Labour to award voting rights to another 126,000 members who also joined after mid-January.

Those members are thought to strongly favour Corbyn. After weeks of intense lobbying from rival groups Saving Labour and Momentum it seems the left had a clear advantage in the race to sign up new members. One NEC member told me he thought the balance was 60/40 in favour of Corbyn.

So what next? Labour will have to make up its mind very quickly on whether to launch an appeal but its defiant statement in the immediate aftermath that it was “right” to “defend vigorously” the decisions of the NEC gives a clear pointer.

The party can be forgiven for needing some time to think – this judgement came as a shock. It was only a fortnight ago that a Labour donor lost another case in the High Court as he tried to effectively kick Corbyn off the ballot paper by forcing him to seek fresh nominations from 51 MPs and MEPs. When Michael Foster lost that case, as expected, then many members thought that judges did not want to get involved in the internal matters of political parties or, to use the legal arguments, they would not intervene in the private rule-making processes of a members’ club.

But that assumption was swept away in dramatic fashion amid the august surrounds of Court 16 of the Royal Courts of Justice this morning.

The ruling of Mr Justice Hickinbottom prompts numerous questions – such as what the new cut-off date for voting in the contest will be, or even if the concept of a freeze date is now defunct. Similarly, if the party does not overturn the decision, then it would surely have to lift the January 12 cut-off for trade union members who have a vote in the affiliated supporter category.

There is also the issue – unknown to everyone bar the key officials – of just how much today’s ruling enlarges the size of the pool of voters or “selectorate”. We know there 126,592 members but what remains unclear is how many of these people had also paid £25 to sign up as registered supporters.

Whatever the answers, those MPs opposed to Corbyn will be frustrated. They might have already felt the contest slipping away from them, as Corbyn held rally after rally and questioned Smith’s previous job as a lobbyist for a pharmaceuticals company but the latest twist threatens to undo their efforts to recruit centrist members, the “army of moderates” of which some of them have long dreamed.

And what of the NEC who, after last summer’s Corbyn surge, were thought to have imposed such a distant freeze date to even up the contest. Did the officials get it wrong? In law, it seems they did but they came to the conclusion – not unreasonably – that having set numerous cut-offs for various selection battles in the last then they were entitled to do so again.

It is a sad day when Labour’s political battles are decided in courtrooms rather than CLPs. Even after the tumult of the last year, however, today’s ruling came as a fresh shock. Whatever your view of Corbyn, it is undeniable that he is not expected to lead the party well into the mid-2020s. His influence will be felt for decades but, with when it comes to selection contests, so too will be that of Mr Justice Hickinbottom.

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