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Labour's NEC used grubby little device to overturn voting decision - McDonnell

Published 12/08/2016

The decision is an apparent boost to Jeremy Corbyn, left, in his battle to remain Labour leader against rival Owen Smith
The decision is an apparent boost to Jeremy Corbyn, left, in his battle to remain Labour leader against rival Owen Smith

Jeremy Corbyn's campaign chief has attacked Labour's ruling body for "undermining the democracy" of the party after a court ruling that will stop new members voting in the leadership election.

At the Court of Appeal, Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC) won its bid to overturn a High Court decision that had paved the way for around 130,000 supporters who signed up from January to take part in the contest.

Many of the members affected are believed to back Mr Corbyn rather than his rival Owen Smith.

The Labour leader's campaign chairman John McDonnell accused the NEC of using a "grubby little device" to overturn the original decision.

The shadow chancellor told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "I just find it shaming for a democratic party like ours, with a tradition over a century of campaigning for democracy throughout our society.

"We are now undermining the democracy of our own party.

"They used a grubby little device."

Mr Corbyn's campaign team said the ruling was "the wrong decision - both legally and democratically".

The five new members who the High Court on Monday ruled were unlawfully "frozen out" of the leadership battle have been refused permission to appeal to the Supreme Court but can still ask its justices directly to consider their case.

David Goldstone QC, who had represented the five, indicated in court that steps had already been taken which could lead to a hearing next Tuesday.

The five members brought their case after the NEC decided that full members would not be able to vote unless they had at least six months' continuous membership from January 12 up to July 12 - the "freeze date".

The five have now been ordered to pay £30,000 towards the NEC's costs within 28 days.

A spokesman for Mr Corbyn's campaign team said: "The court's ruling disenfranchises nearly 130,000 Labour members, who joined the party since January and were explicitly told that they would have a vote in any leadership election."

Mr Corbyn's leadership rival Mr Smith, who is expected to benefit from the ruling, said: "I had welcomed the prospect of 125,000 additional members being given the opportunity to vote in this vitally important leadership election."

He later told the Press Association: "I don't think it changes anything for me. I'm just going to carry on getting around the country talking to members, old and new members, and trying to persuade them that the crisis that I see in the country and the crisis that I see in the Labour Party, we've got to solve them both."

Iain McNicol, the party's general secretary, led the appeal against the High Court's original decision.

Announcing the Court of Appeal's decision on Friday, Lord Justice Beatson, sitting with Lady Justice Macur and Lord Justice Sales, said: "On the correct interpretation of the party rules, the National Executive Committee has the power to set the criteria for members to be eligible to vote in the leadership election in the way that it did."

Mr Corbyn's team said Labour's lawyers had "invoked an obscure clause" in the party's rule book that "could be read as giving the NEC the right to ignore all of the rules laid out for leadership elections".

A spokesman said: "In other words, this is a 'make it up as you go along' rule. We do not think that making it up as you go along is a reasonable way to conduct democracy in our party.

"Serious questions must be raised, however, over why and how the NEC Procedures Committee brought this appeal. In doing so, it effectively risked new members' money on an attempt to disenfranchise them."

NEC chairman Paddy Lillis insisted the party had been right to launch an appeal, claiming it would have appealed against the High Court if it had ruled against the body's decision that Mr Corbyn should automatically be on the ballot paper for the leadership contest in a previous case.

"The original court decision had wide-ranging implications for the party and the authority of our governing body," Mr Lillis said. It was the correct decision to seek clarification on this fundamental principle in the Court of Appeal."

Lawyers for the five - Christine Evangelou, the Rev Edward Leir, Hannah Fordham, Chris Granger and "FM", a teenage member - had argued that the NEC had no power under the rules to retrospectively freeze a full member's ability to vote in leadership elections.

Mr Leir described the ruling as a "hugely disappointing result" for him and the 130,000 other party members now excluded from voting.

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