Labour’s mis-selling scandal – NEC should act on Tuesday

Peter Kenyon sets out the case for resetting the freeze date to Thursday 14 July

Prepare for the worst. The Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) has a poor track record when it comes to acting responsibly and judiciously. Excluded from leading on policy-making by Tony Blair twenty years ago, it might have focussed on taking care of the money, membership and building a campaigning machine capable of outflanking the mainstream media (MSM). As we saw last week at its Special Meeting it descended into political and administrative machinations, behind the cloak of the Party Rule book. Corbyn supporters celebrated the 18-14 vote in favour of the Leader being on a ballot paper in the event of a challenge. But then the Leader and others left the meeting allowing the rule-bound remainers to disenfranchise over 150,000 people from voting in the expected Leadership election, and then set a Registered Supporter fee of £25 up from £3 last year.


The NEC usually meets on a bi-monthly schedule, and tomorrow is the next in that cycle. Senior members are aware legal action is pending to challenge its decisions last week. The key issue is mis-selling membership. Until Thursday morning 14 July, the Labour Party website was encouraging people to join, admittedly among other things, to take part in Leadership elections. As a former member of the NEC, I’m more familiar than most with the Rule Book, an acceptance period of up to 12 weeks post-payment, and a six-month freeze date for voting rights in Leadership and electoral candidate selection. But as many more know, the acceptance period has been ignored by National Membership administration for years, and the NEC has waived the freeze-date requirements in the last two leadership elections, namely; 2010 and 2015.


Based on past experience, the NEC will await legal developments. Leader Jeremy Corbyn has already set out his case for a rethink. Corbyn told BBC1’s Sunday Politics that he was hopeful that the changes would be overturned, calling the £25 figure “quite high and not really reasonable”.“There’s going to be some quite intense discussions over the next few days, I suspect, and I hope our party officials and our national executive will see sense on this and recognise that those people that have freely given of their time and their money to join the Labour party should be welcomed in and given the opportunity to take part in this crucial debate, whichever way they decide to vote,” he said. Adding: “I’m hoping there will be an understanding that it’s simply not very fair to say to people that joined the party in the last six months that ‘sorry, your participation is no longer welcome, as we’re having a leadership contest’.”


In contract law there appears to be a more straightforward case, the Labour Party encouraged people to join without any qualification as to eligibility to vote in a Leadership election. Full stop. So who is responsible? Every page on the Labour Party website carries the words: ‘Promoted by Iain McNicol on behalf of the Labour Party both at Southside, 105 Victoria Street, London, SW1E 6QT’.


McNicol is acting on behalf of the NEC. The NEC that should accept the 12 January 2016 freeze date is wrong morally, politically and legally. Even if recourse to m’Lord of the judiciary is frowned upon in Labour Party circles, the NEC should not need to be ‘threatened’ with legal action in order to behave judiciously.


The Labour Party’s raison d’etre is to fight for fairness and rights. Its NEC needs to be encouraged to think and behave politically and impartially. Instead, we witnessed an unedifying spectacle last week in which over 150,000 paid up members were disenfranchised, and then confronted with extortion if they wanted to vote in the leadership election – pay another £25 to vote between 5pm this evening and 5pm on Wednesday. By the way, as any one with an ounce of technical savvy might wonder, did anyone ask if the Labour Party’s website can cope? Is there any proper oversight of the Party’s web and social media presence? In the light of recent developments it is not unreasonable to conclude: No. So that’s another reason for the NEC to put its hands up and admit the whole business of administering a leadership election went awry last week, in what was evidently an emotionally charged occasion.


In the cool light of Tuesday’s meeting, there is a powerful case for the NEC to recognise its broader responsibilities – including the protection and enhancement of the Labour Party ‘brand’ as the political party best placed to represent the interests of the majority of people living in the UK for a better life, in a better world.


Questioning people’s motives for joining the Labour Party is a mug’s game. None of us can know. Staffing the Party with people who don’t trust members is lunacy. What we have learned since June last year is that one man has proved himself capable of attracting members paying the full rate in larger numbers than any other politician in living memory, not once but twice; first in the summer of 2015, and again when under threat from a faction in the PLP in the summer of 2016. (I have specifically omitted supporters – because we don’t know – yet.)


If the plotters in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) don’t see members as being essential to the Party’s future, then that’s sad (to put it politely). I can’t think of any other antidote to the MSM than people talking and engaging with friends and neighbours.


Dealing with registered supporter recruitment tomorrow will be trickier. Sign up will be underway. So if the consensus is to go ahead at a lower fee, then partial refunds will have to be administered – honour restored (sort of) all round. Personally, I found the idea advanced last week that the Party was obliged to recruit registered supporters because its in the Rule somewhat curious – had the NEC forgotten it waived the freeze date rule in 2010 and 2015. The NEC has been caught out playing politics with its greatest assets – its members. It is no secret that are major problems between the Leader and the majority of the PLP. But very few members have any idea as the true nature of those issues. In current circumstances, they cannot be sorted out through a leadership election. With the treachery in the PLP for the last nine months, no-one can seriously claim Corbyn is unelectable in the General Election, he hasn’t been given a chance to reach out properly.


What is beyond question is there is no-one else in the PLP with Corbyn’s appeal to a wider political public. Restoring the Party’s reputation as the beacon for those people who can carry Labour’s message far and wide should start with that NEC meeting tomorrow. Reset the freeze date to 14 July.