In a move that surprised nobody, Angela Eagle has announced that she will stand for the Labour leadership in order to replace current incumbent Jeremy Corbyn. The MP for Pontypridd Owen Smith is also expected to announce his candidacy later today. I argued against a leadership challenge in the past because it would increase factionalism and let the Tories off scot-free, however now that a leadership challenge has been launched I welcome it with open arms. It’s time that the PLP is beaten back once and for all by the membership, although having said that there are some dirty tricks that have already caught my eye.
The first thing I noticed came from the mouth of the plastic socialist and future leader of a hollowed-out Labour party Chuka Umunna. On the TV programme The Daily Politics he made this assertion:
“Part of the issue that people have with the current leadership is sheer competence. Now, we had a vote on employment tribunal fees last Monday, and we were instructed to abstain on an increase in employment tribunal fees. I and other said ‘what an earth is the Parliamentary Labour Party doing abstaining on a vote like this, when we should be three-line whipped to vote against an increase in employment tribunal fees?'”
I couldn’t believe this, as in I literally didn’t believe it. Why would a dedicate socialist like Jeremy Corbyn instruct his fellow left-of-centre colleagues to abstain on such a motion? So I did some research and after less than two minutes I found out that Umunna was telling a half-truth.
The debate in question was about employment tribunal fees and Labour was instructed to abstain, however that isn’t the whole story. Not all debates in Parliament are the same, and this debate was what is known as an ‘estimate day debate’. Essentially this is a day in Parliament where the government puts forward a proposal to provide financial estimates for how much a government policy will cost. The vote is essentially a formality in which everyone agrees that the government should have to provide such estimates. It is customary for the Official Opposition to abstain in such situations. Do I like the fact that there are traditions in Westminster coming out of every orifice? Not especially, but until you are in power and can change them there is no point pretending that they don’t exist.
There are also two other things that should be pointed out. Firstly, because it was an estimate day debate no binding parliamentary vote has actually taken place, and this binding vote will take place after the government allocates money to the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Energy and Climate Change which is at least until after 17th March 2017. Before you wonder why employment tribunal fees are linked to the Department for Energy Climate Change’s budget, its because the estimate day covered topics in both portfolios.
It’s also worth pointing out that the first actual vote on the proposed legislation took place on 7th July in Committee, not on the floor of the House. Indeed according to Hansard the proposal was adopted after a 9-5 committee vote in favour. The five MPs that voted against were Richard Burgon, Sue Hayman, John Mann, Andrew Smith, and Chris Stephens. All four of the Labour MPs on the committee voted against the motion, and Chris Stephens, the only other left-of-centre MP (from the SNP), joined them. All nine of the MPs who voted in favour of the motion are Tories. Labour didn’t win that vote because they were in the minority, and that is why nobody kicked up a fuss about Corbyn’s leadership because if Liz Kendall or Andy Burnham was the leader it would have been the same result, as you can’t win a vote when you are outnumbered 2 to 1. That’s just simple maths.
The second thing is that the Official Opposition have always historically abstained in these situations because the proposals can often be aid them in their arguments. If the government wants to enact a policy and then their own figures reveal how much money it’s going to cost, the Opposition can invoke the ‘waste of taxpayers’ money’ argument. Estimate days benefit both the government and the opposition, and the fact that critics of Jeremy Corbyn are deliberately trying to misrepresent that to the Labour membership is pathetic.
The other bit of skullfuckery that the Labour party have done came within moments of the NEC’s decision to allow Corbyn on the ballot automatically. Following this victory for Corbyn the NEC voted on who should be included in the leadership election, and limited who could vote. According to the NEC’s decision only Labour party members who joined before 12th January 2016 can vote on who is going to be the leader. This is totally arbitrary and is purely designed to limit the number of people on the ballot. It is widely known that most of the people who have joined the Labour party in the last six months were supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and the NEC have essentially decided to undercut his vote as much as possible.
Further the affiliated supporters of the party, who previous had to pay £3 to be eligible to vote, now have to pay £25 in order to do so. Again, it was widely reported that registered supporters also overwhelmingly supported Corbyn’s leadership and by increasing the fee to vote, the Labour party is essentially pricing out left-wingers who have poor financial situations. Oh the irony, considering that the party was founded to give such people a voice in Parliament, and now is not letting them participate in the leadership election. Of course its worse than that because these people cannot say ‘in that case I’ll join the party so I can vote’, as they joined after the 1st January cut-off.
However these decisions may not stand. On the first decision about Labour party members, I am fully confident that a legal challenge would defeat this decision. Why do I say this? Because on the Labour party’s website, they market membership to those interested with the following statement: “As a member you’ll be a key part of the team. You’ll be eligible to vote in leadership election, you can help shape party policy, you can attend local meetings and you can even stand as a candidate.” This being the case I have some some questions.
If I joined the Labour Party because I support a candidate other than Corbyn, am I disenfranchised? If you had a vetting process before the first leadership election and found no irregularities, why have you changed the rules? If I joined the Labour Party in the last six months, can I stand for election? Also, if I can stand for election, will I be able to vote for myself or will I be barred from doing so? If I am allowed to stand for election and vote for myself, why am I not allowed to vote for the leader of the party? All of these questions are perfectly valid and need to be answered because it’s clear in my mind that if Labour party members brought a lawsuit against the NEC, they could well win.
The second decision is less clear cut in my mind. Labour party supporters are also permitted to vote in the leadership election, and technically they still can. If I was a lawyer I would argue that the six-fold increase in the fee to vote was designed to disenfranchise people and should be struck down as this inhibits many from taking part. This would be a harder legal argument as the NEC could easily say that these people were still able to vote in theory, but I would make a big deal about being prohibited from voting even if one joined the party because of the artificial deadline. Again this is more difficult, as the area is decidedly more grey than the first case, but with a reasonable magistrate or judge, I think that it would be clear that the fee increase was designed to deter people from voting.
In conclusion I believe that Jeremy Corbyn will win the Labour leadership contest, however given the rules that have been established I think it will be much closer than last time. I’m not going to make a prediction about the specifics but I wouldn’t be surprised if the contest was decided on a second ballot. The disingenuous statements of Corbyn’s critics need to be pointed out and ridiculed. I am more than happy to engage in a debate of ideas and principles, as this is the point of an election, however misrepresenting events for political gain must be avoided. The changes the NEC have made to voting rights should not stand. Whilst I believe the registered supporters point is more complicated, the Labour membership point is clear as day. Labour members who have joined since January of all ideological persuasions should not be disenfranchised and should challenge the decision in a court of law.